Has the Time Come to Abolish the Electoral College?

By Ethan Brightbill
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While the electoral college is as old as the American Constitution, it’s also been controversial since the very beginning of the country. Today, things are no different: Almost 60 percent of Americans would be happy to see the electoral college go, according to one poll from the Pew Research Center. However, because of the difficult requirements to amend the Constitution and other factors, it’s unlikely to be abandoned soon.

So why do many people in the United States want to get rid of the electoral college? The answer is complicated, but their reasoning boils down to two main points: they argue that the electoral college is undemocratic and undermines all Americans having an equal vote, and that it was designed to accommodate political considerations that are no longer a concern today, such as slavery. This is what you need to know about the effort to abolish the electoral college.

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How It Works

When it comes to electing most state and federal officials — governor, senator, representative and more — people vote directly for a candidate, and the person with the most votes wins. In the case of the president, however, people vote for electors: persons who represent one vote from their state and who may cast their vote for whoever they like. While electors pledge to vote for a particular candidate beforehand, the Constitution doesn’t require them to follow through on their promise, and only some states have laws that outlaw breaking that pledge (more on that later).

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There are 538 electors in all: one for each seat in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives plus three for Washington, D.C. After citizens vote, electors do as well, with at least 270 electoral votes — more than half — needed to win the presidency. In the event that no candidate reaches that number, the House of Representatives chooses from among the top three candidates, with each state getting one vote. The Senate then selects the vice president from the remaining candidates in the same way.

In 1878, this system served as a compromise between states that — among other things — allowed more people to vote and those that restricted that right, either because of slavery or wealth laws that limited the voting pool to a small number of landowners. However, with slavery abolished and universal suffrage granted to (almost) everyone over 21, many of the original reasons for the creation of the electoral college no longer exist. At the same time, the electoral college has caused some unique problems in modern elections.

It Harms Large States …

One of the most common complaints about the electoral college is that it disadvantages large states. Because a state can have no fewer than three electoral votes — corresponding to one representative plus two senators — people in small states get proportionally more say in electing the president than residents of larger states. In 2008, for instance, the 532,668 people of Wyoming had three electoral votes, or one per 177,556. The almost 25 million people of Texas, by contrast, had only one electoral college vote for every 715,499 people. In other words, a person in Wyoming has about four times more voting power than a Texan does.

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Supporters of the electoral college sometimes argue that the electoral college offers necessary protections to farmers or rural voters who would otherwise be overwhelmed by larger states in a popular vote. However, due to their massive size, large states like Texas and California have plenty of rural voters and farmers themselves, with the former state having the largest number of farms and the latter the most money earned from agriculture in the country. Claims that the Founding Fathers created the electoral college to guarantee the voice of rural voters also make little sense, as roughly 90 percent of the population of the country lived on farms in the 1800s. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson likely never imagined the level of urbanization we have today.

The electoral college also disadvantages not just minority ethnic and racial groups, which tend to live along the East and West Coasts as well as the South, but also minority political groups. Because every state except Maine and Nebraska apportions electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis — whoever gets the most votes gets all of the votes — members of the minority party in large states that favor one party over another have no real say in electing the president. In a popular election, millions of Republicans and Democrats in such states would suddenly have a real voice in selecting the leader of the country.

… But Also Small States

At the same time, the electoral college is also a worse deal for small states than it might seem at first glance. While voters in such states have more say in theory over who gets to be president, it often doesn’t work out in practice. After the electoral college first came into use in 1789, presidential candidates from Virginia — the largest state in the union by population at the time — won eight of the first nine presidential elections. The trend of larger states dominating presidential elections didn’t end there, either: the only presidents to ever come from low-population states were Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce and Bill Clinton.

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If the electoral college is supposed to make candidates care more about small states, it fails at doing that. During the 2016 presidential election, two-thirds of all campaign events happened in the six fairly large states of Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Those states combined with Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and Wisconsin account for 96 percent of campaign events. New Hampshire is the 10th smallest state in the union if you include Washington, D.C.; the nine smaller states received no events at all.

If the electoral college harms both small and large states, however, then who does it help?

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Swing States and the Popular Vote

The electoral college works best not for states of any one size, but rather the ones that have a close-to-even mix of Republicans and Democrats. Because most states award all of their electoral votes to whoever wins, it doesn’t make sense for presidential candidates to give large or small states much attention if they’re likely to vote for one party or the other. The electoral college ensures that the same limited pool of states decides the fate of the country every four years rather than the full union. That’s why in the same example of the 2016 election mentioned before, 25 states — mostly small to medium in size — saw no campaign events at all

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This discrepancy is also a factor in one of the most railed-against features of the electoral college: It allows candidates to win the presidency even when a clear majority of the country doesn’t want them in office. A candidate could prove unusually unpopular, with thousands or millions more voters not trusting them with the office of the presidency compared to those that do. If just a slim majority of people in states like New Hampshire, Ohio or Florida support the candidate with fewer votes, it doesn’t matter how many people in the rest of the country don’t.

This happened to presidential candidates Andrew Jackson (1824), Samuel Tilden (1876), Al Gore (2000) and Hillary Clinton (2016). Despite more Americans wanting them in office, a political system designed to accommodate slavery and 18th century voting laws ended up handing their opponents leadership of the nation. This effect also doesn’t just advantage one party, either. In 2012, for instance, while Barack Obama won the popular vote by 51.1 percent to Mitt Romney’s 47.2 percent, all states could have shifted 5.3 percent toward Romney — a clear majority — and Obama still would have won because of where his votes came from.

What Can Be Done About the Electoral College?

So what can be done about the electoral college? The most straightforward option — getting rid of it outright through a constitutional amendment — would require the support of two-thirds of the Senate, two-thirds of the House of Representatives, and ratification by three-fourths of the states. This would be exceptionally difficult to pull off, since some states perceive the continuation of the electoral college to be in their self-interest.

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States could also award votes based on who wins each congressional district, like Maine and Nebraska do. In theory, this gives politicians more incentive to attend to each state, as there are always at least some votes up for grabs. However, because congressional districts are often gerrymandered — drawn in such a way as to advantage the current ruling party no matter how people vote — this could actually make the electoral college worse. For example, Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by 2 percent in 2016 but still lost in terms of electoral votes. Under a congressional district method, Clinton could have won the popular vote by as much as 5 percent and still lost the election.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

The most likely option to succeed, however, may be the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). To join this agreement, states pass a law that binds their electoral votes to whoever wins the national popular vote. The agreement only goes into effect once 270 electoral votes worth of states sign on, and only 181 have to date. Should membership ever reach that number, the electoral college will be effectively ended. How many people actually support a candidate would become the deciding factor in who wins presidential elections rather than whether or not they have a slight majority in battleground states.

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Critics of the NPVIC argue that smaller states would lose power under such a system, the electoral college already encourages politicians to ignore most of them. Other concerns include whether the agreement is constitutional, since electors technically don’t have to vote for the candidate their state voted for. While some states passed laws requiring electors to vote for the candidate who wins their state, the constitutionality of such laws was also considered to be uncertain for a long time. However, on July 6, 2020, the Supreme Court handed proponents of the NPVIC handed a major win when it ruled that states can require electors to vote a certain way.

The final fate of the electoral college remains uncertain. However, as slow as it may sometimes seem, the government and our elections have changed in the past — and they might do so again.

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