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The Case for the Electoral College

Updated on November 14, 2019
Evin S Tucker profile image

Evin has been steadily following American politics since the age of eleven and received his bachelor's degree in political science in 2018.

The 2016 presidential election
The 2016 presidential election | Source

Since the presidential election of 2000, there has been a movement by many Americans, primarily those on the political left, to abolish the Electoral College and establish a national popular vote to elect the president. Since the 2016 election, the calls for a national popular vote have gotten louder, and several of the candidates currently running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 have endorsed legislation that would do this. Several states, mostly those that lean Democratic in presidential contests, have signed onto the National Popular Vote compact, which would award the state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. Because so few people understand how the Electoral College works, these proposals have gained widespread support with the public under the perception that it will make presidential elections fairer, more representative, and more democratic. While most critics of the Electoral College are well-meaning, they are also misinformed. Abolishing the Electoral College in favor of a national popular vote is a dangerous and misguided experiment that, in reality, will make presidential elections LESS representative than they currently are. To understand why, we first must understand what the Electoral College is and why it exists.

The existence and duties of the Electoral College are laid out in the Constitution, and were agreed upon by delegates to the constitutional convention in 1787. It is only used in presidential elections; congressional, gubernatorial, and local elections are not affected by it. Every state and the District of Columbia receives a number of electoral votes equal to its combined number of Representatives and Senators it has in Congress. Because are apportioned to states by population, states with more people have more electoral votes. Also, every state has exactly two Senators and at least one Representative, which means that no state can have fewer than three electoral votes. The Constitution does not require any specific method for awarding electoral votes to a candidate, so states have changed their method for choosing electors over time; however, every state currently uses a statewide popular vote to do so. On Election Day, voters do not directly vote for the presidential and vice presidential nominees, but instead for a slate of electors who support that ticket and have pledged to vote for them when the Electoral College officially votes. In every state, a only a plurality of votes (the highest number of votes, even if less than half of the total) is necessary to win, and most use a “winner take all” method to award electoral votes, in which all of the states’ electors are pledged to vote for the same candidate. (In practice, this is not always the case, as “faithless electors” have been known to vote for candidates other than the ones they are pledged to. In 2016, for example, one Hillary Clinton elector in Hawaii voted for Bernie Sanders, and in Texas, one Trump elector voted for John Kasich while another voted for Ron Paul.) Two states, Maine and Nebraska, use a proportional method in which two electoral votes are awarded to the winner of the statewide popular vote, and one electoral vote is given to the winner in each congressional district. This means a candidate can win at least one electoral vote from either state while losing statewide. In order to be elected president, a candidate must receive a simple majority of electoral votes (which, since 1964, has been at least 270 out of 538.) If no candidate receives a majority, then the election is sent to Congress, with the House of Representatives voting by state delegation to elect the president and the Senate doing likewise to elect the vice president.

To illustrate how the Electoral College works in practice, allow me to provide several examples from the most recent presidential election. In 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Michigan by slightly more than 10,000 votes. Though Trump did not receive a majority of votes in the state, he won all 16 of its electoral votes because Michigan uses a winner take all method and only requires a plurality of popular votes. Hillary Clinton won a statewide plurality in Maine and carried one of the state’s two congressional districts, giving her three electoral votes to one vote for Trump. Trump won a majority of votes in Tennessee, so he received all 11 of the state’s electoral votes, while Clinton won a decisive majority in New York, giving her all 29 of its votes.

Let’s imagine now that the left got its wish and the president was elected by a simple popular vote. In the 2010 Census, the ten most populous states held approximately 54 percent of the nation’s total population. However, they only hold about 48 percent of the total electoral votes. This may not seem like a significant difference, but it can be highly consequential in a close election. In 2000, Al Gore won the national popular vote in part by running up wide margins of victory in California and New York, two of the largest states. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin in California was greater than her margin nationally. Without the Electoral College, a small number of heavily populated states can elect the president all by themselves, with no need for candidates to pay attention to the issues that voters care about in any other state.

Now that I have explained how the Electoral College works and why it is important, allow me to provide some facts to refute the claims made by critics.

Myth #1: The Electoral College is unfair to small states because they receive fewer electoral votes than larger states.

On the surface, this claim appears to be valid: California, the most populous state, currently has 55 electoral votes, while Wyoming the least populous state, has only three—a difference of over 18 to 1. However, California’s population at the 2010 Census was over 66 times the population of Wyoming. Texas, the second largest state, has nearly 13 times the electoral votes of Wyoming but about 45 times as many people. So if anything, the Electoral College minimizes the voting power of large states while maximizing it for small states, as I demonstrated earlier. And while it is possible for a candidate to win an Electoral College majority by only carrying the 12 largest states, this is unlikely under the current political alignment, as these states have widely divergent voting patterns.

Myth #2: The United States is the only democracy in the world where the candidate who receives the most votes can still lose the election.
Legislative elections in numerous democracies, both presidential and parliamentary, have at times resulted in a political party winning the largest number of seats despite losing the popular vote. In the 1951 British general election, for example, Clement Attlee’s Labour party won more votes than any other political party, winning its highest vote tally and percentage in a national election up to that time. However, the Conservative party won a majority of seats, and Winston Churchill began his second tenure as prime minister. Most recently, Canada’s federal election earlier this year returned prime minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal party to power with a minority government, despite Andrew Scheer’s Conservative opposition receiving a plurality of votes across all seats.

Myth #3: The Electoral College is a racist institution that was designed to maximize the voting power of Southern slave states over Northern free states.

Like the first myth I addressed, this appears valid on the surface, considering that many of the earliest presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson, were themselves slaveowners. In 1790, the federal government took the first official United States Census, and the most populous state in that census was Virginia, which was not only a slave state, but included the capital of the Confederate States during the Civil War. It is tempting to argue that the larger number of electoral votes Virginia received as a result gave more political power to Southern slaveowners, but as previously stated, the Electoral College actually MINIMIZES the power of large states compared to smaller ones.

Nonetheless, anti-Electoral College propagandists may turn this argument into a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation by claiming that the North was more heavily populated and the South more agrarian, thus maximizing the power of slave states by giving them a disproportionate number of electoral votes. This is also inaccurate. In the same 1790 Census, the smallest of the 13 states were a diverse mix of Northern and Southern states. Moreover, most Northern states had not yet fully ended slavery by 1790. Some had passed gradual emancipation laws, and more would do so in the coming years, but only Massachusetts and New Hampshire had abolished slavery outright, and only then by court decisions. By 1860, the last presidential election year before the Civil War, the electoral map was much different. The most populous states were primarily concentrated in industrialized Northern states that had ended slavery, while Southern slave states had the smallest population. In that election, Abraham Lincoln received a majority in the Electoral College and won a four-way contest despite winning a popular vote plurality of less than 40 percent. So if anything, it was the Electoral College that allowed slavery to end in the first place, quite the contrary to the claims of left-wing propagandists.

Myth #4: The Electoral College can overrule the will of the people by electing a candidate who did not receive the most votes.

Since 1789, the United States has held 58 presidential elections. Depending on the standard used, no fewer than four and as many as six of those elections ended with a losing candidate who won the national popular vote. This calculates to only ten percent of presidential elections, at most, where the winner lost the popular vote. Nine out of ten times, the Electoral College and the popular vote are won by the same candidate. And as stated previously, every state currently awards its electoral votes based on a statewide popular vote (as the National Popular Vote compact does not go into effect until a number of states with a majority of electoral votes adopt it.) So even if the will of the people nationally is “overruled,” it is remains in force on a state by state basis.

Myth #5: The Electoral College forces candidates to campaign in a small number of close states while ignoring the rest of the country.

At a town hall event in Jackson, Mississippi, Elizabeth Warren repeated this claim. “Come a general election,” she stated, “presidential candidates don’t come to places like Mississippi. They also don’t come to places like California or Massachusetts, because we’re not the battleground states.” (Krieg, 2019) While Mississippi is considered solidly Republican in presidential politics, it is a relatively small state, having only six electoral votes. As stated on Myth #1, a national popular vote would actually make it less likely a candidate would visit such a state, as its small population is unlikely to decide a national popular vote on its own.

Moreover, the states that are the most closely contested in national elections are constantly changing. As recently as the 1980s, California and Vermont, two states considered safely Democratic in national elections today, both leaned Republican, while Illinois was considered a swing state on par with Ohio; New Hampshire, considered a swing state today, was considered a Republican lock. Texas, which is widely regarded as a crown jewel of the GOP, was heavily Democratic in the century following the Civil War. In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon carried California, Delaware, Vermont, New Jersey, and Illinois but lost Texas to Hubert Humphrey and most of the Deep South to George Wallace. In 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter carried all but one state of the Old Confederacy while losing in California, Washington, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, and Illinois. In 1932, Herbert Hoover carried Delaware, Pennsylvania, and four New England states while losing every other state to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even today, many states that habitually vote for one party in presidential contests frequently back the other in state and congressional elections. During the 2004 presidential election for example, the “red” states of Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wyoming all had Democratic governors, while the governors of “blue” states such as California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont were all Republicans. Meanwhile, the “red” state of North Dakota had two Democratic senators and the “blue” state of Maine had two Republicans in the Senate. Finally, the states that are contested in presidential elections is constantly changing. In another 30 or 40 years, the states that are considered competitive today may no longer be regarded as such, while states that are considered “safe” for one party today may become closely contested.

Now for one final example to illustrate why the Electoral College is not undemocratic. The NBA, the NHL, and Major League Baseball all use a best of seven series for their postseason to determine their annual league championships. This system requires a team to win four games in each series, all the way up to the championship. But because the series goes simply by the number of games each team wins, it is possible for one team to win the series without scoring the most points, and this has in fact happened on occasions. In 1960, for example, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series against the New York Yankees in seven games, ending with a walk-off home run in the ninth inning of the final game. It was considered, both then and now, one of the biggest upsets in World Series history. Although the Pirates won the requisite seven games to claim the championship, the Yankees outscored them on the series by more than two to one. If the World Series was decided by scoring the most runs rather than winning a majority of games, then the Yankees would have won the championship that year. Is the Pirates’ 1960 World Series title illegitimate? No, of course not. Why? Because they won the requisite number of games, which is all that was (and still is) necessary. The same can be said of any other series where the winning team was outscored by the loser; in order to win the series, it is only necessary to win four games, not to score the most points. Yet if the anti-Electoral College forces were consistent with their logic, then the World Series, and any other series like it, should be abolished in favor of a system where a team wins by scoring the most points instead of winning the most games.

While everyone can agree that our electoral system is not perfect, this does not mean that it is bad. In reality, there is no such thing as a perfect system of elections because elections are contested and administered by humans, none of whom are perfect themselves. Likewise, there are many proposals to reform the Electoral College without abolishing the system. As previously stated, Maine and Nebraska use a proportional allocation method that awards two electoral votes to the statewide winner plus one to the winner in each congressional district. Others have proposed another proportional system where votes are allocated statewide based on the percentage received by each candidate. Since the Constitution does not mandate any specific method for awarding electoral votes, it is likely that any such proposal could withstand a court challenge. In any case, the desire to change the system for electing our president does not require us to completely dismantle the existing method. The Electoral College has worked for 230 years. Its survival up to this point is not only testament to its success, but its continued survival in the future is vital to the health of representative democracy in America.


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