Since that historically tumultuous election, awareness of and opposition to the Electoral College have each grown. To date, 16 states and the District of Columbia have passed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which requires that participating states allocate their electors to the winner of the popular vote. (The agreement will only go into effect if and when states representing an Electoral College majority of 270 votes sign on to the compact.)
Critics of this distinctive American institution often cite its historical connection to slavery and disproportionate weighting of small and swing states as key reasons to abolish it. But in a new paper, Georgy Egorov, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Kellogg, and his coauthor Konstantin Sonin of the University of Chicago outline one important and underdiscussed upside of the Electoral College: it reduces both the incentives to commit election fraud and the likelihood of pulling it off, for reasons we’ll describe below.
Election fraud in the United States is extremely rare. However, Egorov emphasizes, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen, particularly in the current era of polarization, misinformation, and very close elections. Indeed, Donald Trump’s alleged efforts to sway the outcome of the 2020 presidential race have made the issue harder to ignore. When it comes to fraud, Egorov says, “there is no American exceptionalism.”
How the Electoral College deters election fraud
Egorov and Sonin developed a theoretical model to study fraud under two different election systems: the Electoral College and the popular vote. They looked at the motivations to engage in trickery, as well as the likelihood of successfully altering the election outcome, under each system.
There are many ways to cheat in elections: encouraging individuals to vote multiple times, stuffing ballot boxes, altering vote counts, and so forth. Alongside these clearly criminal methods, there are also gray-area ways to stack the deck for a particular candidate or party, such as gerrymandering and voter suppression. For the purposes of their model, Egorov and Sonin focused on fraud at the vote-counting stage—when votes for one candidate are counted for their opponent.
Egorov and Sonin’s model considers three types of states: solidly left-wing states, solidly right-wing states, and swing states. In solidly left-wing states, all aspects of government, from the courts to the local authorities overseeing elections, are dominated by liberals; the same is true of conservatives in solidly right-wing states. In swing states, however, the government is more divided.
The model reveals that, under the Electoral College system, fraud is relatively unlikely. That’s because there is never a situation where it is both feasible and useful to commit fraud.
Imagine a candidate or party trying to orchestrate election fraud under the Electoral College.
It would be comparatively feasible to alter the vote tallies in a state dominated by that party, as courts and election officials are less likely to intervene against members of their own party, but not very useful. After all, with or without fraud, the candidate is likely to win the state and all of its electors.
Committing fraud in a swing state, meanwhile, would be very useful, in that it could conceivably change the outcome of the election. But it’s not very feasible. With the opposition party well-represented in state government, it’s likely the attempted fraud would be detected and punished.
Now, imagine a candidate or party trying to engage in the same election shenanigans under the popular vote, a scenario in which every vote in every state counts equally. Under this scenario, committing fraud in a swing state would be similarly infeasible (as once again, the opposing party would be likely to intervene).
However, a dishonest candidate or party could simply take their trickery to a politically friendly state. There, they’d see little structural opposition to their efforts, and gain votes with relative ease—votes that would matter just as much as votes from any other state. In other words, under a popular vote system, there are situations where it is indeed both feasible and useful to commit fraud.
The pros and cons of the Electoral College
So, does this structural disincentive to commit fraud outweigh the downsides of the Electoral College?
Egorov says it’s a difficult question to answer. He certainly sees what critics object to: the intense focus on battleground states, to the exclusion of other areas, seems to many “somewhat unfair and maybe inefficient and wrong. This is a point I sympathize with.” However, the popular vote isn’t a perfect solution either. “It will solve this problem, but it will create new problems,” he points out.
But his research does make clear that shifting toward the popular vote—whether via the National Popular Vote Insterstate Compact or another means—has real dangers as long as elections are administered locally.
The U.S. has fairly minimal national oversight of its elections. The federal government does not mandate uniform standards for voting methods, ballot design, polling station hours, counting procedures, and so on—meaning that local (and partisan) election officials exert immense control over the process.
Of course, many election officials are “just purely honest,” Egorov says, and would intervene against fraud regardless of who was perpetrating it. But we certainly can’t count on everyone possessing moral courage when it counts. “That’s a strong assumption to make,” he adds, “especially in an era of polarization.”
Our highly localized election system leaves us vulnerable to fraud, especially in areas where one party dominates. In fact, “we know, historically, that if there was fraud, it was concentrated in places where the support of the local political party was strongest,” Egorov says.
For example, some historians believe the Democratic machine in Chicago illegally boosted John F. Kennedy’s showing in the 1960 presidential election. While the scale and significance of the fraud have been widely debated, the tale underscores the message of Egorov and Sonin’s research: it’s easiest to cheat in the places where your support is already strong and local officials are on your side.
In the 1960 election, whatever fraud might have taken place “was not large enough to change the outcome of the election, which is exactly our point,” Egorov says. But under the country-wide popular vote and local administration of voting, the disincentive lessens. If parties believe they can actually win an election by cheating, “it suddenly becomes a worthwhile political enterprise.”