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Replace the Electoral College With Real Democracy

Updated on January 31, 2011

Our Strange System of Electing Presidents

It is ironic that the United States, a country that claims to be a great promoter and example of democracy, does not choose its most powerful official in a democratic election. Instead of individual Americans casting their votes for president in a general, national election, votes are cast by each of the fifty states. This strange system concocted by our Founding Fathers was one of many aspects of the Constitution that demonstrated their ambivalence toward democracy. 

In the Electoral College system, each state is given a number of electoral votes equal to the combined representatives that it has in the House and the Senate. The state then has the right to determine the process by which those electoral votes will be decided. In early American history, some states allowed the voters to decide through a statewide election, but in others, state legislators chose the electors. By the mid-19th century, all states had adopted a system in which voters would decide. On rare occasions, there have been states that cast their votes proportionally, dividing them up among candidates based on the percentage of votes that each received. (Only Nebraska does that today.) The norm, however, has been a winner-take-all system, with the top vote-getting candidate receiving all of the state’s electoral votes. To win the Presidency, a candidate needs to win more than 50% of the total electoral votes possible. If no one receives a majority, then the House of Representatives selects the President.

Why the System Should Change

Different explanations have been offered to explain why the Founding Fathers chose this system. Like many things in the Constitution, it was an attempt to strike a balance between different alternatives that were available. You can find a brief summary of the basic explanations in the link to the right. Now while I can understand some of the reasoning of the Constitution framers, I still believe that we are long overdue for a change. The current system disenfranchises Americans, gives certain Americans more influence on Presidential elections than others, and even creates a greater opportunity for fraud. In sum, it is both unfair and undemocratic, terms that most of us consider synonymous when it comes to elections. So here is a list of the biggest “issues” that I have with the current system.

Your Vote Matters More in Small States

This is simply a question of math. In the 2010 census, it was determined that California has 37,253,956 people, and Wyoming has 563,626. Since California will have 55 electoral votes in the 2012 election, we in the Golden State get one electoral vote per 677,345 people. In Wyoming, they will get one electoral vote per 187,875 people. So your vote carries almost four times as much weight in Wyoming as in California. The math comes out this way because every state has two senators regardless of population, and since each state is guaranteed at least one person in the House, three electoral votes are the minimum. So if you want your vote to count in presidential elections as much as possible, then move to Wyoming. The only catch is that you have to live in Wyoming.

If you live in Wyoming, Alaska, or Hawaii, this system is a pretty good deal. Small population states might also argue that a change in the system will cause them to be overwhelmed by the big states. With all due respect, I find this argument to be a load of B.S. I do not vote for president as a Californian; I vote as an American. And in a national election for a national office, each American’s vote should count equally. Also, the small states, because every state gets two senators, have a disproportionate number of representatives in Congress. It is in Congress, after all, that representatives are supposed to be protecting the interests of their particular states. And based on where much of the federal spending through earmarks and other government aid goes, it is clear that representatives of small states are doing a pretty good job. Ted Stevens of Alaska and Robert Byrd of West Virginia were legends when it came to funneling federal dollars to their states.

Voters in Contested States Get More Attention

In every presidential election, the two main candidates spend almost all of their time campaigning in roughly 10-15 states. There is no point in campaigning very often in the other 35-40 because everyone knows which candidate is going to win in those states. In a state like Utah, the Republican is going to win, and in New York, the Democrat is a lock. It’s simply a matter of political demographics. But in certain states, often called swing states, there is a roughly equal distribution between members of the two major parties. So candidates spend a lot of time in states that could go either way, and they will tend to talk about the issues that the members of those states care about the most. The only reason for a Presidential candidate to come to my home state of California is to do some fundraising.

States With Early Primaries Have Extra Influence

This problem is not the fault of the Constitution framers. They did not want a political party system to form. It did not take long, however, for two major factions to evolve, and over time, they have developed the modern system of political primaries and caucuses to determine their nominees. Different states have their primaries on different days, and Iowa and New Hampshire, for whatever reason, have the apparent God-given right to host their caucus / primary first and second. And while neither state is particularly important in terms of the number of delegates it grants, their little elections are significant because it is crucial for a prospective nominee to get off to a good start. This is why anyone who is even considering a run at the presidency will send some people off to Iowa early. If a candidate performs well in early primaries, potential financial donors to the campaign will realize that he or she might win, and they will be more likely to give. No person or organization, after all, wants to waste money on a future loser. There will be no return on the “investment.”  So if a candidate does not start off with a good head of steam, then the money will dry up early. Often, the nominees are a foregone conclusion long before many states get to have their primaries, and these late, irrelevant primaries are often hosted by states with large populations.

Margin of Victory is Irrelevant

In a winner-take-all system, it does not matter if a candidate wins a state by a narrow margin or in a landslide. Also, in a system where the state winner gets all of the electoral votes, a large number of voters in every election are essentially disenfranchised. If you voted for John McCain in California in 2008, your vote did not count, and if you voted for Barack Obama in Texas, you were in the same boat. Some would argue that proportional representation could improve this situation, but it would still be flawed. To make the numbers come out evenly, you would have to do some serious “rounding off.” And when you are dealing with large numbers of voters, dividing votes up proportionally would still not come out quite right. Also, proportional representation is only an improvement if every state does it. If there are more Democrat-leaning states that have winner-take-all systems than Republican-leaning states, then the Democrats will have an advantage (and vice versa).

The Person With the Most Votes Sometimes Loses

Most of the time, the person who gets the most total votes also gets the most electoral votes. Occasionally, however – 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 – the person who has won the popular vote did not become president. And in 2000, in an election that involved a little more than 105 million voters, the entire result hinged on a too close to call election in Florida. In a truly democratic election based on popular vote, the chance of a result this close is very small. But in a winner-take-all, state-by-state system, too close to call can become a reality. And when it can all come down to a local election, the chances of fraud are increased. It is difficult to manipulate the results of a nationwide election, but when it is a matter of pushing the vote just enough in your favor to eke out a winner-take-all victory, “shenanigans” can be more likely. Al Gore, who won the popular vote by more than a half million voters, probably still wakes up late in the night, in a cold sweat, crying out to the heavens about his cruel fate. And whether you are a Republican, Democrat, or Independent, this system should tick you off as well. Is this what we call democracy?

A Proposal for a Better System, and Why It Won't Happen

So how can we change the system to make it truly democratic? Political parties are private organizations, so they can choose their candidates however they wish. In my view, having a single national primary election would be an improvement, but they cannot be legally forced to change. But once the parties pick their candidates, we should have a national election in which the winner is determined by popular vote. If a candidate achieves a majority (over 50%), that candidate is declared the winner. If there is no winner, then you have a runoff between the top two vote getters. This way, people can pick the candidate that they like the most during the first round, and then go for the better of the two remaining in the runoff. This would give candidates of smaller parties more of a chance to make a difference, and it would actually be democratic.

Unfortunately, the Electoral College system is unlikely to ever change. The Constitution is practically viewed as a political Bible, and the Founding Fathers our political saints. Changing a system that is so entrenched in our political tradition and that was created by these hallowed figures will be very difficult. Also, states with smaller populations have no incentive to change. And since it takes three-fourths of the states to go along with any amendment, and 19 states have six or fewer electoral votes, good luck getting such a major change ratified. So we are apparently stuck with this system, and those of us who like democracy can take comfort in the fact that the candidate with the most total votes usually wins. Plus, if the system never changes, Al Gore will not have to cry out in anger about the fact that he came along a little too soon. Of course, he can also take comfort in the fact that his “loss” gave him the chance to be an environmentalist movie star.


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      Makingsense 7 years ago

      I "Hop" around hubs periodically and must say that this on has received a quite energetic response. I'll weigh in with my personal opinion which is that the candidate who wins the most votes cast should be the one elected.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 7 years ago

      We have direct democracy for every other elected office, so why not the President?

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

      Yes, you are right that there are people of all political persuasions across the country. I think direct democracy is dangerous as it is prone to demagoguery and faddish ideas. But you make good points.

      TeaPartyCrasher: The right relies on those who wish to conserve what made America great in the first place, not on ideas of those whose most ardent desire is to destroy.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 7 years ago


      Your comment is based on the assumption that both "elites on both coasts" and the "American Heartland" vote as single, coherent blocs. Like everywhere in the country, these regions are collections of individuals who do not always agree. I live in Orange County, California, a Republican stronghold. I'm sure that many of my neighbors are annoyed every four years when all of California's electoral votes keep going to the Democrat.

      In a nation of individuals voting for a national official, everyone's vote should be counted, and they should be given equal weight. If not, the United States should stop claiming to be a democracy. (I am using the word democracy, of course, in a modern sense. Technically, we are a republic, but the word democracy is typically used today to mean a political system in which voters choose the major officials.)

    • TeaPartyCrasher profile image

      TeaPartyCrasher 7 years ago from Camp Hill, PA


      Especially since those are the places that are dominated by racially and ethnically homogenoeus regions that the Right relies on. . .

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

      You have written a right fine Hub here. I respectfully disagree with your conclusion. The United States is exactly that: states that have given part of their sovereignty to a federal government. I love the Electoral College. Any state, no matter how small, COULD be the tiebreaker. The fact that small states are given the extra two votes for their senate representation has worked beautifully for us. We must remember that the great American Heartland does not want to be ruled by elites on both coasts. I think it is great that the smaller states have a little bit of outsized representation.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 7 years ago

      Wow, you have a whole hub written right there. If we want every individual's vote to count equally, election by popular vote is the only way to go. As you said, there is nothing in the Constitution mandating how electoral votes should be distributed by states. The problem is that if only a few states adopt proportional representation, the system will still be undemocratic on multiple levels. An amendment is necessary to bring adequate reform, and it is very unlikely to ever happen.

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      mvymvy 7 years ago

      A system in which electoral votes are divided proportionally by state would not accurately reflect the nationwide popular vote and would not make every vote equal.

      Every vote would not be equal under the proportional approach. The proportional approach would perpetuate the inequality of votes among states due to each state's bonus of two electoral votes. It would penalize states, such as Montana, that have only one U.S. Representative even though it has almost three times more population than other small states with one congressman. It would penalize fast-growing states that do not receive any increase in their number of electoral votes until after the next federal census. It would penalize states with high voter turnout (e.g., Utah, Oregon).

      Moreover, the fractional proportional allocation approach does not assure election of the winner of the nationwide popular vote. In 2000, for example, it would have resulted in the election of the second-place candidate.

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      mvymvy 7 years ago

      The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

      Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. Elections wouldn't be about winning states. Every vote, everywhere would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

      Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are almost invariably non-competitive in presidential elections. Six regularly vote Republican (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota), and six regularly vote Democratic (Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and DC) in presidential elections.

      The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes--that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

      The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. It does not abolish the Electoral College. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action, without federal constitutional amendments.

      In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: CO-- 68%, IA --75%, MI-- 73%, MO-- 70%, NH-- 69%, NV-- 72%, NM-- 76%, NC-- 74%, OH-- 70%, PA -- 78%, VA -- 74%, and WI -- 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE --75%, ME -- 77%, NE -- 74%, NH --69%, NV -- 72%, NM -- 76%, RI -- 74%, VT -- 75%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and border states: AR --80%, KY -- 80%, MS --77%, MO -- 70%, NC -- 74%, and VA -- 74%; and in other states polled: CA -- 70%, CT -- 74% , MA -- 73%, MN – 75%, NY -- 79%, WA -- 77%, and WV- 81%.

      Nine state legislative chambers in the lowest population states have passed the National Popular Vote bill. It has been enacted by the District of Columbia and Hawaii.

      The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in AR, CT, DE, DC, ME, MI, NV, NM, NY, NC, and OR, and both houses in CA, CO, HI, IL, NJ, MD, MA ,RI, VT, and WA . The bill has been enacted by DC, HI, IL, NJ, MD, MA, and WA. These 7 states possess 74 electoral votes — 27% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

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      mvymvy 7 years ago

      State-by-state winner-take-all laws to award electoral college votes were eventually enacted by 48 states AFTER the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution.

      The Founding Fathers only said in the U.S. Constitution about presidential elections (only after debating among 30 ballots for choosing a method): "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

      Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation's first presidential election.

      In 1789, in the nation's first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, Only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote.

      In 1789 only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all method to award electoral votes.

      The winner-take-all method is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. The current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method (i.e., awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state) is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the debates of the Constitutional Convention, or the Federalist Papers. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all method.

      The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding the state's electoral votes.

      As a result of changes in state laws enacted since 1789, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the state-by-state winner-take-all method is used by 48 of the 50 states. Maine and Nebraska currently award electoral votes by congressional district -- a reminder that an amendment to the U.S. Constitution is not required to change the way the President is elected.

      The normal process of effecting change in the method of electing the President is specified in the U.S. Constitution, namely action by the state legislatures. This is how the current system was created, and this is the built-in method that the Constitution provides for making changes.

    • profile image

      mvymvy 7 years ago

      The current system of electing the president ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, do not reach out to all of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. The reason for this is the state-by-state winner-take-all method (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state.

      Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only a handful of closely divided "battleground" states and their voters. In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives agree already, that only 14 states and their voters will matter. Almost 75% of the country will be ignored --including 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and big states like California, Georgia, New York, and Texas. This will be more obscene than the already outrageous facts that in 2008,, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of the events were in just 4 states (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia). In 2004, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their money and campaign visits in 5 states; over 80% in 9 states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states.

      2/3rds of the states and people have been merely spectators to the presidential elections.

      Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    • TeaPartyCrasher profile image

      TeaPartyCrasher 7 years ago from Camp Hill, PA


      I'd say they get one, as they have a minority of votes.

      (But that is a bit of a 'fly in the ointment')

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 7 years ago

      As I mentioned in the hub, proportional representation would be an improvement if every state adopted it, but it would still be inexact. If someone received 49.5& of the vote in a state with three electoral votes, would they get one or two? Either way, you have to do some serious rounding off, so why not just determine the winner by popular vote?

    • TeaPartyCrasher profile image

      TeaPartyCrasher 7 years ago from Camp Hill, PA


      Is there an echo in here?

    • Dennis AuBuchon profile image

      Dennis AuBuchon 7 years ago

      I agree with much of the information and viewpoints you have presented. The subject of the electoral college like you stated will in all likelyhood never change. I believe the process can be improved to provide more equal benefits for all citizens and respective states. I am unsure at this point how it could be done. Each vote should have equal weight as you indicated whether as part of a large state or a small one should not make a difference.

      Like you indicated the electora college is engrained in our political process. I agree changes need to be made but until a reasonable change can be presented in which

      all states are happy it will never take place.

      There are some positive and negatives as you mentioned in your hub as to where time is spent by political candidates. I feel that one of the changes that should be considered which would make it more equal is proportional distribution. This is where each candidate would receive a percentage of the electoral votes based on the percentage of votes received in an election.

    • TeaPartyCrasher profile image

      TeaPartyCrasher 7 years ago from Camp Hill, PA

      Would you settle for a proportional scheme, where each states votes were awarded based on the percentage of the popular vote?