The Electoral College: Pros & Cons
I’ve been hearing about the Electoral College all my life. I understand basically what it is and how it works, and I even have some understanding of why it exists. But I didn’t have a full grasp of its history and effect until I delved in and did some research.
My motive, as readers can probably guess, is to come to a conclusion about whether or not I think that it should be overturned. The first presidential election I voted in was Bush/Gore in 2000 in which Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote.
Here’s the breakdown of popular vote versus who became president in my voting lifetime:
- 2000: Al Gore won the popular vote; George W. Bush won the electoral vote and became president (in a controversial Supreme Court decision)
- 2004: George W. Bush won both the popular vote and the electoral vote
- 2008: Barak Obama won both the popular vote and the electoral vote
- 2012: Barak Obama won both the popular vote and the electoral vote
- 2016: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote; Donald Trump won the electoral college and became president
Candidates becoming president by losing the popular vote but winning the electoral college has happened five times in America’s history. Previous to the elections mentioned above, there have been three other times, all before 1900. John Quincy Adams lost both the popular vote and the electoral vote to Andrew Jackson but neither candidate received enough electoral votes to be the winner. The House of Representatives declared Adams the victor. Rutherford B. Hays and Benjamin Harrison are the other two presidents who won by electoral college alone. Basically, it happened three times between 1824 and 1888, and twice between 2000 and 2016.
In order to make sense of all this, I want to work systematically through a number of questions. I’ll start with the question of what the electoral college is: where did it come from and who are the electors? What are significant state laws concerning electors; specifically, can electors go “faithless” and what happens when they do? What are the pros and cons of the system? How can it be overturned? And finally, should it be abolished?
The History of the Electoral College
To begin, let’s review some history. To be fair, I’ve provided an abbreviated overview here, sticking only to the developments most relevant to current times. The electoral system has undergone a few iterations throughout history – for those interested in the full development of the political system, I suggest additional research.
The Constitutional Congress decided how the president of the United States would be elected. Election by popular vote was considered during the framing of the constitution, but ultimately the Constitutional Congress rejected election by popular winner. In a time before mass media, it was thought that people would simply vote for candidates they knew. In other words, people would vote mostly for candidates from their own states. In a system that did not stipulate political parties, the fear was that this method would lead to multiple candidates splitting the vote in several directions. Ultimately, the states with the biggest population of registered voters would always take the election.
To solve this problem, an indirect vote via the college of electors was created. The electors are supposed to be educated individuals capable of making complex political decisions that are objective in nature. In order to preserve state’s rights, each state is allowed to devise its own rules dictating how electors are chosen.
The Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1804. It can be read in full here – the upshot is that the Electoral College system of selecting the American president is enshrined in the Constitution. About the same time as ratification, electors became attached to political parties – more on this momentarily.
Never in history have individual electors changed the outcome of a presidential race, though 179 times since the beginning of American government electors have voted against the winner of their states. (In 1836 all of Virginia’s electors switched their votes, but the Senate decided the election and their abdication did not alter the result of the election.) Voters who switch are called “faithless” electors – the ones who vote against their state’s winner.
State Laws Concerning Electors
Prior to each general election the political parties in each state select slates of possible electors. This is either done by vote at the state party conventions or by vote from the party’s state committee. Typically, electors are people who have a significant history in the political process: they are retired politicians, party leaders, or people who have a personal tie to the party’s presidential candidate. The Constitution has very few provisions regarding who can serve as an elector. Basically, they can’t be in a public office and they cannot have been found guilty of treason or insurrection.
The general election determines the state’s electors. Basically, when I cast my ballot for a candidate, what I am really doing is selecting the electors for the party of the candidate I support who are then charged with voting on my behalf. In Colorado, where I live, the electors are bound: that means that when Colorado went blue in the 2016 election, the Democratic party’s electors were activated and legally bound to cast Colorado’s electoral votes for Hillary Clinton.
Whether electors are legally obligated to vote for the candidate represented by their party varies by state. For example, in Nebraska and Maine the electors are proportional. The winner of the popular vote receives two electors and the winner of each congressional district receives one elector. In these two states, more than one candidate can potentially win electoral votes. There are also fifteen states that don’t bind their electors. These are Georgia, Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. This means that the electors are free to vote for the candidate they think is best qualified, political party notwithstanding.
A “faithless” elector is either a person who votes against their political party or breaks their pledge to vote for a specific candidate. How each state’s laws are written determines how an elector can be “faithless.” Many states have no legal penalty for turning faithless while others have a fine. No elector has ever been penalized for turning faithless.
Pros and Cons of the Electoral College
The electoral college was implemented to solve a problem: it’s designed to prevent a populous district with a well-liked candidate from sweeping elections. In the 21st century it’s less likely that a single state would dominate elections, but it is possible for populous regions to overshadow rural areas. The seaboards contain dense concentrations of people, and, without the electoral college, candidates would simply cater to the needs of these urban centers and (potentially) overlook the needs of the middle of the country.
The other thing required by the electoral college is that vice presidential candidates must be from a region different than the presidential candidate. This is another way of ensuring a degree of diversity in the White House. This is a big country, not just regionally but with regards to the diverse people living in very different environments. President and Vice-President are chosen in recognition of the variety of the American people.
The electoral vote is designed to address polarized political environments by functioning as a default. In most cases the popular vote and the electoral vote will match. (In 45 presidential elections the electors have selected the president who won the popular vote 99.1% of the time). In cases where the vote is close, the college is designed to spread the weight of influence more equitably. (Put simply: if the popular vote is close, California will always determine the outcome of the election. The electoral college prevents California from being the determinant.)
The electoral college is also designed to enhance the needs of minorities within states. To illustrate this, let’s look at an example. People of color make up around 33% of the population. Assuming that people of color have at least some similar needs, if the winner of the popular vote always won the office of president, their vote would not make enough of an impact for presidential candidates to consider unless they voted as a cohesive bloc. But, in states where a significant portion of the population consists of people of color, they can tip the electoral votes in their favor and have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of elections. Removing the electoral college may negatively impact the abilities of special interest minority groups to have their needs addressed.
Finally, the electoral college is thought to keep our government relatively stable by supporting a two party system. Having numerous parties can split votes and create gridlock where nothing gets done.
The reasons the electoral college was created make sense. However, do the pros outweigh the cons?
Though the electoral college is designed to spread the power of the system throughout the entire country, there is obviously the possibility of electing a minority candidate who is not supported by the majority of voters. It doesn’t happen that often but it has happened five times, twice just in the past five elections.
This leads to a related problem: the electoral college makes voters feel as though their individual votes don’t count. Only around 53% of eligible voters in America actually cast ballots (aggregated across elections, including midterm). Eligible Americans make voting decisions based on a variety of reasons, but feeling as though their vote doesn’t count is absolutely a factor.
Part of this is that the electoral college favors a two party system; 270 electoral votes is half. If three parties got a nearly equal number of votes, the decision would fall to the House of Representatives. This may still not favor a viable third party candidate. And it would not solve the problem of making people feel as though their vote doesn’t count!
However, abolishing the college would not necessarily lead to more viable political parties. Instead of competing for electoral votes, candidates would shift their attention to winning large populations for the popular vote. This may actually necessitate spending more money on political campaigns since candidates would have to shift their focus in order to appeal to large swaths of the electorate. This would make it even more difficult to run for president, further stifling third (and fourth and fifth) party candidates. It may also make it even easier to overlook the needs of special interest populations: people of color, religious minorities, and LGBTQ communities.
Another consideration is that, though the electoral college was created in order to consider the needs of the minority, it isn’t working. We have not solved systemic racism or ingrained sexism. While the majority of Americans now approve same-sex marriage, homophobia is still rampant. White voters outnumber people of color three to one. There are only thirteen states where people of color come within ten percent of the white population, and the District of Columbia is the only place in the U.S. where people of color actually outnumber whites. Other steps need to be taken to ensure that the needs of minorities are being met.
The pros and cons of the electoral college are not as simple as many people think. It has some recognizable benefits that would need to be maintained through other initiatives.
How Can it be Overturned?
Overturning the electoral college requires amending the United States Constitution. This requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate and the support of (ratification by) three-fourths of the state legislatures. It’s not impossible, but amending the Constitution is difficult for a reason.
It’s also possible to amend the current system so that the electoral college functions differently without actually abolishing it. The most popular workaround is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (drafted in 2006 by John R. Koza of Stanford University). Basically, the Compact has state legislatures pass laws pledging that their electors will vote for the winner of the national popular vote. Ten states (with 165 electoral votes) have so far passed laws to join the compact, meaning 105 more electoral votes are needed. The current states in the compact are Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington, Vermont, California, Rhode Island, and New York.
The Compact is, so far, the most viable way forward. However, the states that have signed are blue states. Getting red states to sign will be an uphill battle and swing states may be disinclined to join because they receive so much courtship from presidential candidates under the current system.
Should the Electoral College be Abolished – My Final Thoughts
After working my way through all of this information over the course of tens of hours of research and investigation, I’m honestly on the fence about the electoral college. This is not where I expected to be: I thought I’d come to the clear conclusion that it should be overturned. But it is beneficial in ways that remain relevant. Keeping the good while getting rid of the bad is how I think we should proceed. As opposed to putting all of our efforts into abolishing the electoral college, I instead suggest some other initiatives. These include overturning Citizens United, passing a federal law that restricts redistricting, and amending the Voting Rights Act.
Citizens versus the Federal Election Commission is a Supreme Court case decided in 2010. The details are complex but the upshot is that the case lifted restrictions on individual political spending. Private donors now effectively contribute the majority of money in political campaigns. As we see in this graphic from ReclaimDemocracy.org, independent expenditures in the 2012 campaign topped out at around $80 million.
In addition to allowing the wealthy an inordinate amount of control in the political process, the Court’s ruling drove up the price of running for president. Part of becoming a viable candidate is engaging in a bidding war. Citizens United effectively turned the United States from a democratic republic into an oligarchy through the legalization of “dark money,” funds that cannot be traced back to their source. Part of what this dark money has been spent on is redistricting.
Republicans used their big win in 2010 to radically gerrymander the House of Representatives and state legislatures nationwide during the decennial redistricting, using dark money and cutting-edge mapmaking technology to create a majority of districts that were whiter and more conservative, even as America as a whole becomes less white and less conservative (Daley).
These gerrymandered districts elected white, Republican legislators in a number of states including North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. These lawmakers then passed increasingly restrictive voter suppression laws that caused a North Carolina panel of judges to say that these “new provisions target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” (ibid).
Seventeen states enacted new voting restrictions in the past few years and twenty-two have significantly increased the difficulty of voting through limiting mail-in ballots, strict voter identification laws, and closing polling places. All of these methods inequitably impact the poor and people of color (people who typically vote blue.) This past election was not rigged, it was not hacked, and any malfunctions of voting machines are mundane (though irregularities should always be investigated). Republicans played a long game: since they gained control in 2010 they played the system. Though Donald Trump is probably not the candidate many of them foresaw, they just swept the three branches of government using legal, if unethical, methods.
After all of this, here’s what I see as the most comprehensive way forward:
- With another conservative Supreme Court Justice entering the Court next year, overturning Citizens United is not likely. But we can request laws be passed at the state and federal levels requiring an end to “dark money.”
- Redistricting is done by state. Demand that districts not be gerrymandered. Passing an anti-gerrymandering law at the federal level would be a huge step forward.
- Get states to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Write your legislators.
- Pass laws at the state level to ensure open access to the right to vote. Making election day a national holiday will also help.
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