'Winner Take All' States in Election

What’s the deal with States being ‘winner take all’? Why would they do this? Is it a good idea? It seems to me that it’s not very Democratic - you’re already taking a couple hundred million votes and reducing them down into 270 electoral votes - to further granularize that by having some big states with a lot of electoral votes be ‘winner take all’ doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

You could have a situation in which a difference of one percentage point in say, California can give a candidate a 20% lead in electoral votes. This doesn’t seem right.

The way it currently shakes out is pretty even - the big winner-take-all states seem to be fairly evenly mixed between Republican and Democrat. But what if that weren’t the case? What if Texas, Florida, and California tended to always vote Democratic or Republican by a slim majority? You could have a situation in which a 2% difference in each of three states virtually seals an election.

The other thing this seems to do is freeze out the third party candidates.

Comments? Can someone give me the pro-winner-take-all viewpoint?

Hold on to your hat, Sam. Are you ready?

I agree with you 100 percent.


I agree with you as well, Sam. I’m on record on this board as hating that stupid system and hoping that somehow, someday, common sense will get rid of it.

I’m one of those millions of Republican voters in New York who know that we might as well not exist, as far as Presidential politics goes. Well, at least I have some say in the Senate race…

It does hurt third party candidates which is why it is very difficult to change. It also lends more importance to results of the primaries so that early primaries and big states can unduly affect the nomination in the two big parties. I believe states changed to winner takes all for the very reasons it is unfair and undemocratic.

So you believe that states became ‘winner take all’ because the government in the state at that time felt that it would be to its own party’s advantage?

How come I never see Referenda or propositions to get rid of winner-take-all? There must be SOME good points for it, aren’t there?

Can anyone argue in favor of it?

Not enough people understand how the electoral college works.

Our founding fathers designed the Electoral College because they knew that there might be an election one day during a time when the voters were not ‘competent’ enough to make so important a decision as to elect the leader of their executive body. The basic gist of it all is that the the voting is then delegated to the Electors in the college who cast the votes in turn for the presidency. They do not have any legal obligation to vote for any particular candidate. The idea being that the Electors who are nominated are invariably more well-educated and informed then the rest of the country. (Taking into account that back then, a lot of people didn’t even finish high school).

So–it’s a safeguard. If some evil schmuck with a dirty scheme for the presidency can put on a good dog-and-pony song-and-dance routine to win the popular vote from the states, but who’s intentions are obviously questionable to the Electors–they can vote for another candidate. Today, the Electors are usually nominated within the states individual campaign workers as part of a symbolic ‘reward’ for their efforts.

Back then–the Electoral College probably balanced out pretty well. But these days–it’s kind of outdated and due for a revision, I think.


Actually, AFAIK, states were ‘winner take all’ because alternate electoral methods weren’t really known to the Framers. The concept of proportional representation was only developed in the 1790s, after the ‘winner take all’ system had become entrenched in the United States.

Simply speaking, the states are all ‘winner take all’ because at the time, nobody knew any better. It hasn’t been changed largely due to inertia and the rise of an institutionalized bipartisan system.

Here’s a website about electoral reform in general and proportional representation in particular. This is a website which gives the history of ‘winner take all’ elections in the US.

‘Winner take all’ is certainly antithetical to democratic ideals, as is equal state representation in the Senate. Both are two solidly entrenched to be changed without a significant public outcry (and maybe not even then); neither rate even a blip on the general public consciousness.

Both are too solidly entrenched etcetera etcetera…

Okay, I’ll restate what I’ve said in previous posts.

Truman/Dewey/Wallace/Thurmond in 1948
Kennedy/Nixon in 1960
Nixon/Humphrey/Wallace in 1968
Carter/Ford in 1976
Clinton/Bush/Perot in 1992
Clinton/Dole/Perot in 1996

That’s six elections out of the last 13 where the winner either had a razor-thin majority of the popular vote (1960 and 1976), or didn’t even get a majority of the popular vote (all the rest). Without the bumbling, archaic, anti-democratic, winner-take-all Electoral College, at best we would have wound up with precinct-by-precinct recounts and at worst the presidency would have been decided by the House of Representatives (and how democratic is that?)

Don’t know 'bout the rest of 'em, kunilou, but I don’t think Sam Stone and I are arguing against the Electoral College here. We could keep the system exactly as it is–Electoral College and all–and make things a hell of a lot more fair by giving candidates a number of electoral votes in each state in proportion to the percent of votes they get.

The way it is right now, Gore could beat Bush 47 percent to 44 percent in California, and Gore gets all 54 California electoral votes. That’s hardly fair–how difficult is it to divide the votes so that Gore gets 47 percent of the 54 (approximately 25 votes), Bush gets 44 percent (approximately 24 votes), and Nader or whoever gets the remaining 9 percent (5 votes)? Whoever gets to 270 first still wins; it’s just a fairer way of mirroring the results of the election, state by state.

That’s exactly what I’m thinking.

But hey Gadarene, it sounds like we finally found something in this thread to disagree on - I think proportional representation in the Senate is a BAD idea. One of the primary problems in a Democracy is the “Tyranny of the Majority”. This is especially problematic in large countries. Allowing each state an equal say in the Senate prevents a small state with different values (say Hawaii) from having their interests completely steamrollered by the majority.

This is the problem we have in Canada. We don’t have equal representation by province, and as a result the country is frequently under the threat of separation. And in our system, you get things like the National Energy Program, which was essentially a large population in the East attempting to steal resources from the smaller populations in the west. It took the threat of separation and an Alberta Premier with giant brass balls who drew a line in the sand to keep that from happening.

Our government in Canada has been slowly moving towards the concept of a representative Senate that has actual power, but we’re not there yet.

Conversely, though, it substantially underrepresents the urban populations of more populous states, as smaller, rural states have enough votes to veto any legislation, despite comprising a substantial minority of the population.

At the risk of further hijacking this thread, let me quote from a book review of Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation by Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer. This comes from this week’s issue of that noted liberal rag, The American Prospect :); despite that, though, the numbers are good, and I think the logic is sound:

I hate to disturb this pleasant agreeability that you and I are enjoying, Sam, but I offer that up for what it’s worth. :slight_smile:

Sure, that’s the other side of it. No argument. But you need checks and balances. The majority already has a lot of power. In the U.S. you’ve chosen to put a check on that power in your Senate.

I predict that if you go away from equal representation in the Senate you’ll start seeing an awful lot of internal strife from smaller states that have demographics substantially different from the ‘average’. As a Canadian living in a conservative province in a liberal country, let me tell you what that’s like… We get stomped on. The federal election is almost always decided before our votes are even counted, and once the Eastern Party of Choice is in power, it does whatever the people in the East want, even if 90% of Albertans vote against it. We’re simply along for the ride. And that has caused Alberta to come close to separation twice in the last 50 years.

Frankly, I think the U.S. system is as close to perfect in terms of managing a Democracy as any country we’ve seen. You guys are 200+ years old, you still retain most of your freedoms, and you have a government that stays comparatively small because of the hamstrings you put on it. (Note that I said ‘comparatively’ - by any actual measure the U.S. government is a behemoth).

I think a lot of people get upset when they see all these checks and balances stopping the programs that they support. But try and remember that those same checks and balances will be there protecting you when your political enemies gain power.

Sam, I agree with the substance of your post. I just wish that our system better represented the diversity of the American population, which unfortuntely won’t happen by giving equal state representation in the most powerful legislative house. The book referred to in the review apparently states that equal senatorial representation underrepresents blacks by 43 percent, and Hispanics by 72 percent–given that the bulk of these ethnic populations are concentrated in a handful of populous states. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t check out the numbers for myself, but they sound right–and if they are, I find them profoundly disturbing. Here’s an example from the review:

I appreciate the concerns you’ve laid out, but I also don’t want a situation in which a few small states can effectively prevent any bill–a federal urban restorative project, for example–that might be value-neutral to them yet highly beneficial to the bulk of the US population. This is why I’ve proposed a mixed senate in the past, with half the body representing the states (equally), and half being elected on a national at-large basis. Of course, such a reform–even assuming it would accomplish greater democratic representation–will almost surely never happen. I dunno, but it seems like the situation’s getting worse rather than better, for precisely the fact that we’ve been around for over two hundred years, and things are a lot different now than when the Framers drew up the structure of our government.

You’d just be replacing one form of diversity for another. Imagine if the government were completely proportional to population. You’d have a situation where California and New York could effectively dictate to the rest of the country. This is not good for ‘diversity’, if you are willing to include the farmers in Montana and the people living in the Bayou of Louisiana as adding diversity to your country. Under your proposal, people like that would have virtually no say in national affairs.

And I think you make the mistake of thinking that blacks are uniform in their wants and needs. Does a black person living in Compton share a lot of goals and ideals with a black farmer in Louisiana?

There are several types of diversity - ethnic diversity, geographic diversity, cultural diversity, etc. Blacks and whites in San Fransisco probably have a lot more in common with each other than they do with a white farmer in Idaho.

Your current system does a pretty good job of balancing the needs of all types of diversity. Not perfect, but pretty darn good. I can say that as an outsider looking in, from a system that has the type of government you advocate.

This is, of course, completely wrong. The electoral college, as envisioned by the Founders, was never intended to be “winner take all” by state. Each state was expected to elect electors in proportion to its Congressional representation, who would then meet and confer and select a President in deliberative assembly. The evolution of the rubberstamp electoral college was never intended or anticipated by the Founders.

Remember, you don’t vote for President. You vote for a slate of electors all of whom have promised to vote for the candidate for which that slate stands. You have the right to find out who those electors are, although in general nobody really cares.

As far as I know, a State could require that electors be voted for independently if it wanted. And as far as I know, the elector’s promise to vote for the slate’s candidate is not legally binding; an elector could, in theory, renege on that promise and vote for some other candidate. (This has happened before but not in a very long time.)

Isn’t is a misconception of the role of the federal government? Urban restoration sounds like a local issue to be dealt with by local governments. Why should the federal government be involved in urban restoration at all (except, of course, in the national capital)?

At least one of the early Constitutional commentators noted that all the procedural checks in the Constitutional system would tend to lead to Federal inaction. He then went on to say that this was probably a good thing.

Kelly: You’re right, and I conflated two different things. Voting systems other than ‘winner take all,’ however, weren’t really known to the Framers. See the links I gave above for a history of ‘winner take all’ in the US.

Also, it’s arguable whether the federal government can and should finance national restorative projects. If you think it hasn’t been done at all, you should have some words with LBJ and FDR. Anyway, if that’s not a good example for you, try a bill creating an agency which uses tax dollars to finance microcredit ventures in the inner city, in order to restore our urban infrastructure.


In a way, this was my point; I didn’t mean to make it an exclusively racial thing. The interests of that white farmer in Idaho are much better represented in the Senate, proportionally, than the interests of urbanites in the Bay Area.

Well, to whatever extent that would be true, here we have a case where Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, Alaska, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and other smaller states can effectively dictate to the rest of the country just as much…if not more, given that it’s a much smaller number of people doing the dictating. One’s tyranny of the majority; the other’s tyranny of the minority–I don’t either should exist in the country’s most powerful legislative house. What do you think about my mixed Senate idea, in theory?

You may have posted it on other thread, and if so I may have missed it, but how exactly would the elections for these positions work? For the first set your propose, each state would, I assume, vote for its senator from candidates within the state. But are you saying that each state would also elect 50 other at-large senators?