The Scientific Case for Eliminating the Electoral College by Angela Rieck


There have been five United States presidential elections where the “elected” President did not win the popular vote but was chosen by our electoral college system.

In my lifetime, this has occurred twice: the 2000 election of George W Bush and the recent 2016 election.  The former resulted in an expensive and ill-advised war that cost trillions of dollars, destabilized a significant part of the world and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries on both sides.  The 2016 election has resulted in our current contentious environment.

The other instances have not been much better. The very first presidential election was “awarded” to John Quincy Adams by the House of Representatives, despite only winning 32% of the popular vote. (Andrew Jackson won 42% of the vote, but not enough for a majority and he lacked the connections of John Quincy Adams.)

The 1876 election had disastrous consequences.  Although the Democrat candidate, Tilden, won 52% of the vote, there were 4 states where the winner was contested.  Congress worked out a compromise that awarded the election to the Republican, Hayes, under the condition that he not run for re-election and remove the federal troops from the South.  The removal of these troops resulted in African-American voter suppression and the commencement of systematic repression of the Southern black population.

In 1988 the electoral college prevented Grover Cleveland from being reelected to a second term.  Aided by Tammany Hall in NYC, Harrison was able to win the electoral college despite having 92,000 votes fewer than Cleveland.

The election of 2000 was decided by a Supreme Court which ruled that while the constitution guarantees us the right to vote, it does not guarantee the right to have our vote counted. In 2016, despite winning by 3 million votes, Clinton did not win the electoral college.

Unfortunately, this quirk in our election process results in, at best, a contentious term of office.

But more importantly, there are two statistical axioms that show that the electoral college system flies against scientific knowledge. The first statistical property is the law of large numbers.  This law means that the larger the number of (in this case) votes, the more accurate the data. By not allowing all Americans’ votes to be counted, it becomes a poor assessment of the “will of the people.”

But even more important is the statistical phenomenon known as the “wisdom of the crowd.”  Sir Francis Galton, one of the early pioneers of statistics, identified this phenomenon after gathering estimates of an ox’s weight at a county fair.  While the guesses varied widely and few were accurate, he found that the average of all guesses was within 1% of the actual weight. The larger the sample, the more likely that the average answer is correct. He called this the “wisdom of the crowd.”  We have found that this phenomenon is pretty rigorous in large samples. For example, if you have a bowl of marbles and ask a large number of people to estimate how many marbles are in the bowl, the average estimate will be within 1-2% of the actual number.

So let’s apply these statistical principles to our popular election.  In the electoral college system, we reduce the number of actual votes from 137.5 million (in 2016) to 538 (called restriction in range).  With these 538 votes, we have effectively eliminated the votes for the losing candidate in that state (and in some cases electors are allowed to vote their conscience).  This small sample (538) ignores the importance of the law of large numbers and eliminates “the wisdom of the crowd” by significantly reducing the sample size.

Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” individually may be true, but our statistical laws demonstrate that he is wrong when it is applied to the entire population. If we leave the election up to an unbiased crowd, its wisdom will prevail.

Angela Rieck was born and raised on a farm in Caroline County. After receiving her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland, she worked as a scientist at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Throughout her career, she held management jobs at AT&T, HP and Medco, finally retiring as a corporate executive for a large financial services company. Angela is also a wife, mother and an active volunteer serving on the Morris County School Board for 13 years and fostering and rehabilitating over 200 dogs. After the death of her husband, Dr. Rieck returned to the Eastern Shore to be with her siblings. With a daughter living and working in New York City, she and her dogs now split their time between Talbot County and Key West, FL.  


Letters to Editor

  1. Your theory might be slightly significant if we truly had a method to ensure that only United States citizens voted in our elections.

    Quite the contrary, the Democrats do everything in their power to permit illegal immigrants to vote, despite being ineligible.

    Although Hillary Clinton may have won the popular vote in 2016 according to what we are told, when all illegal votes are removed that is highly unlikely!

    We must first fix the Voter ID system in the US, requiring proof of US citizenship to be entitled to vote, before we ever consider changing a process that has served this country well for many many years!

  2. Bob Parker says

    The electoral college was created by the Founding Fathers, at least in part to insure that all states had a say in the election of the president. By eliminating the college, presidents could be elected by a majority that only represents a geographic minority of the country. However, with the increase in population without a commensurate increase in the number of electors, the number of citizens represented by each elector is very unequal resulting in small population states having a relatively greater influence than would be expected for their population.

    If we were to do away with the electoral college there would be little reason for a candidate to consider the views of small population states. There are 2 possible modifications to the electoral college that could minimize the chance of electing a president who does not receive a majority of votes cast while still encouraging candidates to contest the election in all states. The first would be to award 1 elector for each congressional district won with an additional elector for winning the state wide vote. While small population states would still have an outsized effect, this effect would be less than with our current system. The 2nd modification would assign the number if electors from each state based on a fixed number of residents. For example, if there is 1 elector per 500,000 people, the number of electors nationwide would be 640 (based on a population of 320 million). Added to this would be 1 additional elector for each state or voting entity that has 2 or more electoral districts that would be awarded to the candidate that wins that states total vote.

    Either of these changes decrease the likelihood of electing a candidate who does not win the popular vote while still incentivising a truly national election, bot each would require new legislation to institute.

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