The chaos of the Electoral College

The Electoral College is a chaotic system for electing the president.

This is ironic and unfortunate, given that the Founding Fathers intended for the Electoral College system to provide more stability than direct elections. However, their intentions were subverted. The modern form of the system treats electors as if they were mechanical extensions of a popular vote rather than decision-makers in their own right. In that light, it is very clearly a less stable version of a nation-wide popular vote for the president.

I’m not just talking about media coverage: Some state governments have passed laws to force presidential electors to vote as expected, e.g., . (Image remixed from , , and .)

It’s hard to say how our presidential election system would be if it worked the way the Framers intended, because it never has; however, it is easy to talk about the modern model of the Electoral College, where presidential electors are expected to act as mechanical cogs in a chaotic democratic machine.

What is chaos? How can we recognize it?

What makes a system chaotic is that a small change in the starting state of the system can make a large difference in the ending state. Some changes are ignored completely; other changes are wildly amplified. This means that the outcome of a chaotic system is more difficult to predict. It’s less stable: Small factors, including factors that shouldn’t be important, can produce enormous changes in the final result — and sometimes large factors that should be important will have no effect at all.

This is not a hypothetical example. Scholars that about 6% of voters in Palm Beach County (over 20,000) made mistakes thanks to the above “butterfly” ballot in 2000. The decisive margin in Florida was 537 votes. (Image .)

For example, if a ballot is designed in a confusing way, thousands of voters may vote for the wrong candidate by accident, or mark their ballot in a way that will be discarded (e.g., voting for two candidates). It is not unusual for a statewide election to have a margin of only a few thousand votes. Since states use winner-take-all slates of electors, this means that a few thousand votes, less than 0.1% of the vote in a state and less than 0.01% of the total national vote, can translate to 10% swing in the Electoral College.

We can learn to expect the presence of chaos by looking at what happens when we add “noise” to existing data: Does the system itself amplify noise? The answer is yes. Small changes at the state level can lead to large changes in the Electoral College, and presidential elections are difficult to predict as a result.

Margins of elections in terms of raw number of votes needed to change the outcome, a statistical scale of error, and percentage margin. Worth noting that in cases with 3+ candidates (e.g., 1968, 1948) the alternate Electoral College possibility may be a House contingent election.

This is true whether we look at historical data or model likely election patterns mathematically. 2000 has been the most striking example, but not an outlier: Within the Electoral College system, the effective margin was 537 Floridian votes, while the national margin was 543,618 votes.

By raw numbers of votes, national margins are forty times as large as the margin in the key coalition of battleground states that could have flipped the election; even in percentage terms, national margins are three and a half times as large.

With 25,000 fewer votes for Truman in Ohio and California in 1948, that presidential election would have been decided by the House of Representatives.

This has several consequences. First, it means the Electoral College system is much more sensitive to factors that should not decide elections. This includes everything from weather patterns on the day of the election to accidental errors to deliberate fraud.

This in turn means that it is very difficult to predict or explain the outcome of elections conducted with the Electoral College. It also means that we should not have as much confidence in the result. If we held the election over again because we weren’t sure, would we get the same result? With the modern Electoral College system, the answer is more likely to be no.

In most modern democracies, any uncertainty over the legitimacy or stability of the result leads to a re-vote, a runoff election between the top candidates. Within the Electoral College system, the doubt is usually left to linger on.

Electing the best president possible is important, because the stakes are very high.

The subverted intentions of the Founding Fathers

The Founding Fathers were concerned that the popular vote would be easily swayed, and one of the reasons they decided to have the President and Senators indirectly elected was to counteract this tendency. They believed that presidential electors would be thoughtful men who chose carefully.

“The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes.” Federalist №. 68.

Polish election of 1764. (Image .)

This intention is clear both in the notes from the Constitutional Convention, and also exhibited in the Federalist Papers. The Founding Fathers paid particular attention to the elective monarchies in Poland and Germany. In those elective monarchies, the electors were nobles, holding title in their own right and making their own decisions. American electors would be chosen either by voters or by duly elected state legislatures, but after that, they, like nobles, would make their own decisions.

This intention was in tatters by the time of 1796, the third presidential election carried out under the new Constitution. How do you run for the office of presidential elector? By promising to vote for one of the likely presidential candidates. In the 1796 election, Samuel Miles, known as a Federalist, was expected to vote for Adams. After being chosen as a presidential elector, he voted for Jefferson. From an autobiographical sketch published in the American Historical Record, Vol. 2 №15, 1873:

I thought it my duty to vote for the man that appeared to me most useful for the public good, without any regard to party views.

Some Pennsylvania voters were outraged. A letter published in the Gazette of the United States in 1796:

“What! Do I chuse Samuel Miles to determine for me whether John Adams or Thomas Jefferson shall be President? No! I chuse him to act, not to think!” (From a letter published in the Gazette of the United States, 1796.

Samuel Miles, first elector to be accused of being faithless. (Image .)

In other words, by the time of the 1796 election, voters were already beginning to think of their votes for electors as votes for presidential candidates by proxy. Rather than running for the position of presidential elector on their own merits, candidates were chosen on the basis of who they were expected to vote for.

Since then, many state laws of dubious constitutionality have attempted to compel the electors to fulfill pledges of support for a particular presidential candidate and avoid becoming another “faithless” elector like Samuel Miles — or, in other words, thinking about who would be best as president, as the Founding Fathers had intended.


It is true that the Electoral College was designed to be a stabilizing influence, and that many of the Founding Fathers were skeptical of democracy. However, the way that the Electoral College functions has very little to do with the kind of indirect democracy that the Founding Fathers intended. Since the Electoral College stopped working that way sometime around 1796, it’s hard to know if the wisdom of the electors could have been a stabilizing influence.

Given the recent example of European powers influencing the Polish election of 1764, the Founding Fathers worried about foreign agents influencing presidential electors. Each state’s electors meet separately in order to limit the potential influence of foreign agents. (Image .)

In practice, our presidential election system is an unnecessarily chaotic system, more than a direct vote of any kind would be. While the victory margins in the Electoral College might look large, they are sensitive to very small changes in the votes recorded from the electorate. In those terms, the margins within the Electoral College are almost always much smaller than the national popular margin. This means they are much more likely to be decided by some unusual and unfortunate local factor, like weather, ballot design, voter registration database error, or even fraud.

This is not a good thing! The Founding Fathers sought to have a stable election system that would depend, ultimately, on the will of the people, filtered through some amount of deliberation and forethought. Instead, what we have is a chaotic system where voters choose presidents through the imperfect proxy of their state’s electors, with the electors treated by the states and voters alike as if they are mechanical cogs rather than thinking human beings.

Dr. Tomas McIntee is a mathematician and occasional social scientist with stray degrees in physics and philosophy.

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