Whenever a presidential election occurs, the relevance of the Electoral College (EC) inevitably comes into question. This is especially the case after an election, if either party objects to the official counting of electoral votes in Congress, which frequently happens. The EC allocates each state a certain number of votes in determining the American presidency. In almost every state, the entirety of the electoral votes goes to the candidate with the majority of votes in that state, and a candidate needs at least 270 electoral votes to become president. (See the video at the end of this article for more explanation.)
Occasionally, this system creates a discrepancy between the popular vote (i.e., the majority percentage of individual votes favoring one presidential candidate over the other) and the electoral vote. This has happened four times in US election history, including when Al Gore won the national popular vote but lost the electoral college vote and therefore the presidency to George Bush in the 2000 election. And, let’s not forget the 2016 victory of Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points but won the electoral vote and therefore the election. Moreover, in that election, there were 10 faithless electors who voted against the candidate they pledged to support. This led to a July 2020 Supreme Court decision that held that states may punish or replace such faithless electors. Bearing all this in mind, is it time to do away with the EC?
Here are three reasons to kick the EC to the curb and three reasons to keep the EC as is.
Hasta la Vista, EC
All men are (not) created equal
Through the EC, residents of smaller states are given a step in determining America’s presidents. This is because larger states’ electoral votes represent a much higher proportion of people than do the smaller states’. For example, one electoral vote in New York stands for 550,000 people, while the same represents 232,000 people in South Dakota. Additionally, while voter turnout dictates the popular vote, it only strengthens the disproportion of voter weight in electoral votes. Take Oregon and Oklahoma, both states with 7 electoral votes; only 52% of Oklahoma’s eligible voters turned out for the 2016 election, as opposed to Oregon’s 67%, giving Oklahoma voters much greater weight per vote.
Creates imbalance between states
The 2020 election aside, a look at previous elections shows that very few states change their minds about which party to vote for: red (Republican) states tend to stay red, and blue (Democrat) states tend to stay blue. This means that mainly “swing states” – states with a history of voting for both parties – hold real importance in any election, as candidates focus on appealing to the states that they believe they can sway. The 12 largest US states also garner more candidate attention because they carry the majority of electoral votes. As a result, a large percentage of states repeatedly get neglected in presidential campaigns; “safe” states are only sought after for fundraising, but they see none of the public events and campaign promises that swing and large states come to enjoy. This imbalance is unfair, hurting the collective US and its values.
As the US Constitution dictates, citizens in each state elect a small group of appointed representatives who pledge to vote for a particular party’s candidate come presidential election time. The EC mechanism, which, in essence, represents an indirect election of the president and vice president, was founded on the belief that the common people couldn’t be trusted to elect a president for themselves – i.e., a distrust of democracy. Yet, putting the fate of a country’s presidency in the hands of a few – the small body of pre-appointed electors – is risky and unfair, especially if they turn out to be faithless electors.
In 16 states, electors are not bound to act in accordance with the voters’ wishes, though many of the remaining states do have laws or severe fines for’ electors if they go against their pledges. As previously mentioned, the Supreme Court decided in July 2020 that it was legal to require electors to support the candidate they pledged to support or face penalties. This case is a consequence of 10 electors in Washington and Colorado who refused to cast their votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 regardless of whether she won the popular vote. But it is not an isolated case. In 2004, a Democratic Minnesota elector voted for John Edwards instead of John Kerry. As long as the EC is around, there is no way to control for the potential risks of giving power over the many to the few.
Preserve the Status Quo
America was founded on a set of principles laid out by the Founding Fathers, one of which being that any president who wins an election through the majority of electoral votes has earned the legitimacy to preside over America. The Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution provides that legitimacy, by ensuring that the president is elected by a majority vote – which doesn’t necessarily happen with the popular vote. For example, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the 2016 election, accruing 48.2% of the vote in comparison to Trump’s 46.1%; the rest of the votes were split across candidates from independent parties. In other words, neither Trump nor Clinton got the majority of the popular vote. The EC serves to ensure that one candidate has a majority win and is therefore deserving of the presidency. Changing the entire political system that has always defined America could have drastic, unintended consequences.
Gives each state a voice
Without the EC, rural America would be at a heavy disadvantage in electing a president. The top 10 cities in the US make up 8% of the population, with over 40 million people living in NYC, LA and Chicago alone. This population distribution means that Middle America would have much less of an influence on the election outcome than those residing in densely populated coastal cities if the outcome were left only to the popular vote. As the needs of those in Middle America may vastly differ from those of East and West Coasts, the EC protects their interests and allows them to have representation equivalent to more densely populated states. This preserves the true meaning of democracy, giving a voice to all parts of the nation.
Ensures good judgment
Voting is a privilege, and people should be careful when exercising it. America may be a democracy, but that doesn’t mean that just anyone should have a say in who the president is. Convicted felons, minors, and, in many states, those considered incompetent are not given the right to vote at all. Why? Because on a societal level, we want the people electing our leadership to be trustworthy, well-informed and have good judgment. The EC does just that, as it allows citizens to appoint a body of representatives with sound judgment and values to elect an American president they deem fit for the position.
The Bottom line: While founded on outdated principles of democracy, the Electoral College may still have constitutional and practical relevance today. Do you think US elections should be based on the EC?