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Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College?

Ralph welcomes Harvard history professor, Alex Keyssar, scholar of voting rights and author of “Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College?” to discuss the battle over the Electoral College and the role white supremacy played in conceiving and perpetuating it. Then, we welcome back Steve Silberstein, board member of “National Popular Vote,” to update us on the progress that movement is making on the interstate compact where states would promise to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

Alexander Keyssar is professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. His latest book is Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?.

What [the Electoral College] does is that it gives a state electoral votes (and thus power in presidential elections) in proportion to its population– not in proportion to the number of people who show up at the polls. What that means, among other things, is that if a state disenfranchises a significant percentage of its population, it is not in any way punished in presidential elections. It still gets the same number of electoral votes.

Alexander Keyssar, author of Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?

[In the 1960s and 1970s] there was a kind of ideological commitment to democracy. And we had… decisions by the Supreme Court about districting that emphasized the principle of “one person, one vote.” And the Court decisions tried to say: well, you know, that doesn’t have to apply to presidential elections. but once you decide that that principle is sacrosanct, it’s pretty hard to then turn around and say: well, it shouldn’t apply to the most important election.

Alexander Keyssar, author of Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?

So in “the world’s greatest democracy”– I put that in quotes– a minority mechanism in the Senate (called the filibuster) preserved the minority mechanism in our constitutional tradition (the electoral college). So, basically, in this country we have minority rule entrenched.

Ralph Nader

I thought that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact was a good way to build political support for Electoral College reform. But that it wasn’t, in itself, the solution to the problem.

Alexander Keyssar, author of Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?

Stephen M. Silberstein founded and served as the first President of Innovative Interfaces Inc., a leading supplier of computer software for the automation of college and city libraries. Mr. Silberstein sold his interest in the company in 2001 and now devotes his time to philanthropic and civic matters, one of which is sitting on the Board of Directors of National Popular Vote.

The pressure [to oppose the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact] now comes from people who, somehow, think that the Founding Fathers did not intend that the person who gets the most votes should become president. They somehow think that a couple of states should make the choice. So that’s where the pressure comes from. There’s a certain fear that if the person who got the most votes won, then bad things would happen.

Stephen Silberstein, National Popular Vote

There’s nothing more unstable than the present system, as we know, where everything depends on a couple of votes in a couple of states

Stephen Silberstein, National Popular Vote


The last major presidential candidate who went to all 50 states was Richard Nixon. Now, they’re lucky if they go to 38 states.

Ralph Nader

Once [the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact] takes effect, just like giving women the right to vote… people will realize it’s the right way to do it and the system will continue in place.

Stephen Silberstein, National Popular Vote

Ralph Nader Radio Hour Ep 392 Transcript (Right click to download)


  1. Wendyyona NooN says:

    Thank You for the Back-to-Back Research Interviews of both Steve Silverstein of National Peoples Vote.com & Harvard’s Professor Alex Keyssar.
    I like the idea of a CONTRACT that cannot be broken during the 6 months before an election.

  2. Wendyyona NooN says:

    It speaks to how I feel when I am listening to News or You Tube Education !!.!!

    • Skro35 says:

      I did. Steve

      • Nancy Camargo says:

        Hilarious! Beautifully performed! You’re hired! And I don’t even listen to baseball games (smile)!

        But the exaggeration of good satire (like good science fiction) is really no joke. It’s a cautionary tale. It shows us how toxically our new reality could unfold once we thoughtlessly step off the path onto that ancient butterfly. (Ray Bradbury)

        It brings awareness to the unacceptable small concessions we have repeatedly made and become numb to. How dare we allow advertisers access to our precious minds and emotions? I never got to vote on this! And what about our food supply? Did I vote for Monsanto to destroy our seed stock? I did not. Etc. Etc.

        You have a lot of power in a beautifully-crafted and hilarious message like this. It relaxes defensiveness as it raises awareness. My hat is off to you!

  3. Barbara says:

    Instead of abolishing the Electoral College, how about amending it to be based on the number of votes cast in each State in the previous election cycle? Going to a national popular vote will, I fear, l lead to desperately poor Americans, under subterfuge, being paid by sophisticated campaigns to vote for candidate X even though that is illegal.

  4. Richard Curtis says:

    You all wondered, over and over, why does the Democratic Party leadership not do anything about the Electoral College (and one could ask about a number of issues, like eliminating the filibuster or adopting policies that the vast majority of Americans want). The answer is that they are more committed to defending the interests of international capital than they are to winning. If they did those things they would open the floodgates to popular demands, and this would force more radical change and threaten corporate profits. So they would rather lose than let loose those progressive forces.

    • Don Harris says:

      You are right the Deathocrats are committed to defending the interests of international capital, but they do care about winning.

      But winning is not beating Republikillers in elections. Winning is providing a false alternative to the Republikillers because that means the big money interests win as both parties work for the big money interests.

      The Deathocrats job is to say they are for what citizens want and not do it when they get the power to do it.

      Ralph’s guest claimed to not know why Deathocrats won’t do anything but it was not believable as he provided some of the usual excuses as to why the Deathocrats won’t do things when they get the power.

      The fact that the guest claimed Terry McAuliffe and other major Deathocrats support the NPVIC (even though they won”t actually do it) should be all anyone needs to know to be against it.

    • Nancy Camargo says:

      Unfortunately, I believe your remarks hit the bullseye. This co-optation of our elected officials by the corporate-military-industrial-government complex is the most serious and urgent problem our country faces, in my opinion, even though we have many serious and urgent problems to solve, because our democracy is being undermined.

      Without a functioning democracy that has the power to hold elected government officials accountable to We the People, these officials for the most part become corrupted by big money. They become part of the problem of pay-to-play politics instead of part of the solution that would create a safe, healthy, and gratifying life for all our people. I feel very sad about this. How did money come to buy the values of our officials?

      I believe we need to get money out of politics, so we can take effective action on all our other priorities..

  5. Dale West says:

    The end of negotiations announcement by Ryanair with Boeing is in relation to a potential new large order for 737 Max10 variants. This appears to be just another cynical negotiating tactic by Ryanair top executives and free publicity for the airline.

    Ryanair CEO Micheal O’Leary is regularly generating controversial headlines for free PR and gov’t subsidies for the airline. Ryanair was Boeing’s biggest passenger carrier sympathizer during the 18 month grounding of the Max.

    Ryanair is still purchasing 210 737 Max 8-200’s. Deliveries to Ryanair began in June 2021.
    It does not appear that this Ryanair announcement is much of a threat to Boeing’s 737 Max 8 or 10 production lines.




  6. Paul Cohen says:

    As a strong advocate of states taking seriously their responsibility to experiment with improving democracy, I do worry about the danger of a constitutional amendment that would take away state control of the electoral process.

    Our political systems are a mess today and the two party duopoly is responsible for much of that problem. Adopting the right alternative to plurality voting (my preference would be balanced approval voting) could go a long way towards eliminating that problem.

  7. Don Harris says:

    The NPVIC is not the right way to go.

    The main flaw in the way the Electoral College works is the states awarding the electoral votes on a winner take all basis on the state level.

    Citizens that do not vote for the winner in their state do not get electoral votes which effectively changes their vote to a vote for a candidate they did not vote for or eliminates their votes.

    NPVIC only transfer this injustice to the federal level.

    So under NPVIC even those that vote for the candidate that wins their state can suffer the injustice if another candidate wins the national popular vote. A candidate that wins the national popular vote and gets 10% of the vote in a state would get that state’s electoral votes.

    That does not sound like majority rule to me.

    Please bring on someone from a group advocating for proportional distribution of electoral votes and bring them on several times before you bring back the people advocating for the NPVIC scam, if you must for some inexplicable reason bring them back at all.

    • Dara Parsavand says:

      I found this interview interesting as it was one of the first that debated practical problems with the IC part of NPVIC. I must admit I’m skeptical it will work myself even though I am a huge NPV fan. But I worry about very close elections and a state not feeling it has confidence in what the actual NPV is and thus may opt out of the compact on the next cycle (the instability issue the guest discussed). It would work better if there were an actual national ballot and the federal government got involved with administrating the election (and no more stupid Florida butterfly ballots).

      Proportional distribution of electoral votes has always struck me as a very suboptimal solution – in a similar way to proportional distribution of representatives. Why should large states get better numerical resolution than small states? Many states have 3 EVs so it won’t be very proportional to the true count for them. But in my state of CA you get a better match. This scheme would seem to help over the status quo on voter disenfranchisement as it is the rare state that has less than 1/N the vote for either party where N is the number of electoral votes. But it isn’t nearly as clean as one person one vote no matter where you live which helps the most on this issue. It also does nothing to address the problem spoken of on this show – a state currently gets the same voting power no matter how much voter disenfranchisement there is. That’s a deal breaker to me. National Popular vote is the only logical answer to the election of a single person race in the country. Proportional representation is great, but to make it fair across the states we should have a house that is elected at large across all states (replacing the Senate). That won’t happen anytime soon.

      Your statement about voters being disenfranchised because they voted for a loser is unconvincing. The IC is just a mechanism to implement NPV – your analysis of an example that isn’t fair to a person in a state makes no sense in the context of NPV. If you want to handle disenfranchisement of voters who actually vote, you pretty much have to deal with the third party problem – the fact that a voter who chooses the best person (as I did with Ralph Nader in 2000) doesn’t get a say on the top two candidates (assuming they don’t include the best person as they usually don’t). That is addressed with ranked ballots and that is only going to work well with NPV.

      NPV is a no brainer. Getting there is a brainer – I wish anybody trying the best of luck.

  8. Alex Keyssar says:

    Just for the record — and in response to Don Harris’ comment — I have been a supporter of a proportional distribution of electoral votes. My first choice would be a genuine national popular vote (not the NPVIC), but I’d also support a a proportional system — which would solve most of the problems associated with the Electoral College and might also be easier to get implemented through the amendment process.

  9. Afdal Shahanshah says:

    Eliminating the electoral college is a step in the right direction, but in the end it is only a very small step and doesn’t go far enough. By far the most pernicious outcome of the way we elect presidents is the total two-party domination of our politics, and merely switching to a national popular vote does nothing to address this. Winner determination through Plurality Voting encourages two-party control in any election, but it is especially bad in America’s presidential system of governance because the executive branch is enormously powerful and the effects on party control bleed downward onto lower offices. A truly game-changing reform would be switching to a good alternative voting method like Approval or Score voting that can discourage tactical voting effectively enough to make multiple parties competitive in presidential elections.

    A serious problem that has been extremely neglected, however, is how alternative voting methods work together with efforts to eliminate the electoral college. The problem is that some voting methods work better within certain frameworks and not others. For example, the currently popular ranking-based method Instant Runoff Voting has serious incompatibility with a national popular vote system. One cannot simply add together all the different voter preference rankings across every state’s ballots with IRV before performing the winner selection algorithm because every state has its own separate ballot access rules with different candidates and different numbers of candidates running on each ballot. In the absence of a reform ending state control over elections and passing it on to the federal government to obtain ballot uniformity across states (extremely unlikely), presidential selection through IRV would have to be performed in a fashion similar to how it is done now where the winner selection algorithm is first run separately to determine individual state outcomes. Either one and only one winner could get all the electoral votes for a given state or the state’s electoral votes could be distributed through some proportional algorithm based on the relative support for each candidate. Both of these are incompatible with full electoral college abolition, and they also don’t integrate with the Interstate Compact concept because it relies on tallying from traditional Plurality Voting methods to confer electoral votes to the agreed majority or plurality winner. Rating-based methods like Approval and Score Voting -could- work with the Interstate Compact idea in theory, but not in its current form–only if it were modified to allow for reweighting of ballots scores based on the state with the finest scale of Score Voting ballot ratings.

    Which leads to perhaps the worst problem of all: when a state uses a voting method that is different from another state’s voting method, you cannot simply sum together their ballots and expect to establish a coherent winner because different voting methods present fundamentally different forms of information. For example, if one state uses IRV and another state uses Approval Voting, there is no way to derive a winner using the ranked ballots of one and the rated ballots of another. Voting method reform accomplished on a state-by-state basis is only compatible with solutions to the electoral college problem that are themselves exclusive to each state. Until electoral college reformers like the Interstate Compact advocates acknowledge this and fundamentally change their agreement to integrate alternate voting methods, their reform is so incompatible that it actually poses a threat to the greater good of voting method reform. When forced to choose, I have to side with the latter over the former.

  10. Peter Lee says:

    You know you’re being lied to when the first quote provided is a generalization and a lie.

    “[In the 1960s and 1970s] there was a kind of ideological commitment to democracy. And we had… decisions by the Supreme Court about districting that emphasized the principle of “one person, one vote.” And the Court decisions tried to say: well, you know, that doesn’t have to apply to presidential elections.”

    Notice the word choice “kind of” and “tried to.” Nothing said here is fact. It’s pure opinion from the author. The ploy is to get you to believe that a presidential election does not adhere to principal of one person of one vote. It does.

    Each state holds a presidential election. Each of the 50 presidential elections adheres to the principal of one person one vote. Each state is bound to maintain the same standards for elections across the state. Votes within a state are counted, one person, one vote.

    However, states do not have the same voting laws as other states. For example, one state may enjoy a month of early voting prior to election Day. Another state may require their voters to show up, in person, on election Day only. If these states were to combine their election results, it’s clear to see that their voters did not have equal opportunities. Those on the board of the NPVIC knows their plan will be deemed unconstitutional based on the same one-person one-vote principle that they currently advocate it solves.

    To solve this they have a backup plan which they do not advertise. That plan is to have the federal government force compliance of the same voting rules across the entire country. Essentially making the federal government the judge and jury of election law.

    Before you rest in your easy chair declaring that their plan makes sense. Ask yourself, do you want the president of the United States in charge of his or her own election? It is the executive branch that executes the law. Russia has a similar election hierarchy. Putin is in charge of his own election and therefore, he always wins.

    Also, the founders were frequently quoted as being cautious about pure democracies. They recognized the people needed representation and therefore created the house of representatives. That was it. That was the extent of the people’s representation. They designed no other representative branch. Who would jump on an airline committed to placing the passengers in charge of every flight? Sure, the pilot works for the passengers in a roundabout sense, but he has greater priorities. The airline needs people in charge of logistics, repairs, navigation, and passenger satisfaction. If they were only concerned with passengers satisfaction, they would go out of business quickly.

  11. margaret walsh says:

    i did not hear it .. if the electoral college is eliminated .. what takes it’s place .. how does my vote get to the national tally?
    isn’t a lot of advertising used primarily as a tax write-off ? major league games ads cost a lot right ? write-offs?
    thank you for your consideration .. moonlit