Imagine you’re voting for class president. You would probably expect that the student with the highest number of votes would become president, and you’d likely be correct: that is how most elections work. U.S. presidential elections, however, are different. Instead of electing the president through a direct popular vote, like in your class election, Americans choose their chief executive through a system called the Electoral College.
The Electoral College was established during the Constitutional Convention as a compromise between delegates who wanted the president to be elected by a direct popular vote and those who wanted the president to be selected by Congress. Under the Electoral College system, Americans technically vote for electors, not candidates. The electors then cast their ballots, called electoral votes, based on whichever candidate won the popular vote in their state. The winning candidate must receive the majority of the electoral votes, or at least 270 out of the possible 538.
Electoral College Debate
Today, many people believe the Electoral College should be abolished and replaced with a national popular vote. Opponents of the system argue that the Electoral College is outdated and causes candidates to ignore voters from the vast majority of states. They also believe it is unacceptable that a president could win the Electoral College but not the popular vote. Other people support the Electoral College because it forces candidates to cultivate a geographically diverse voter base and could strengthen the presidential mandate. Additionally, they argue that the Electoral College would be complicated and time-consuming to replace.
Arguments Against the Electoral College
Many opponents of the Electoral College argue that the reasons it was created are no longer relevant. For example, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention established the Electoral College in part because they did not think ordinary Americans would have access to adequate information about the candidates. They worried citizens would default to voting for candidates from their home state. Mass communication, the Internet, and modern travel mean this is no longer a concern: Americans can now easily educate themselves about the race.
The Electoral College was also established as a concession to Southern delegates, who pushed for a system that would allow them to exploit the ⅗ Compromise and use their enslaved populations to gain more representation. Slavery was outlawed over a century ago, making this no longer relevant.
Opponents of the Electoral College also argue that under the current system, candidates have no incentive to listen to voters in solidly Republican or Democratic states. If a state always votes Democrat, a Republican candidate has no reason to campaign there because she knows she will not get any electoral votes from that state. If a state always votes Republican, the candidate can be confident she will get that state’s electoral votes without much campaigning. That candidate’s time is better spent working for electoral votes from swing states, which could go either way. This can also affect voter turnout; if voters in solidly red or blue states don’t think their vote matters, they may be less likely to engage in the political process.
Candidates focus almost all their effort on swing states: in 2012, for example, ⅔ of campaign events in the general election were held in four swing states: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa. This disproportionate focus on swing states has a tangible effect on governance. For example, swing states receive 7% more federal grants than other states and two times as many presidential disaster declarations.
Additionally, many opponents disagree with a system in which an individual could win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote. This has happened five times. They argue that this system undermines the will of the people and weakens a president’s mandate to rule.
Arguments in Favor of the Electoral College
On the other hand, many people do still believe the Electoral College is the best system for electing the president. Proponents of the system argue that it forces candidates to appeal to the nation as a whole. They contend that under the Electoral College, candidates cannot ignore the concerns of rural voters and rely only on highly-populated urban areas for all their support. Candidates must actively work to expand their platforms to appeal to a geographically diverse voter base.
Proponents also argue that the Electoral College creates a stronger mandate for the presidency by reaffirming the president’s win. For example, in 2012, President Obama won only 51.3% of the popular vote but 61.7% of the electoral vote. A popular vote could weaken the presidential mandate because the winning candidate may acquire only a plurality, but not a majority, of the votes.
Additionally, supporters of the Electoral College believe it is an effective system that would be unnecessarily difficult and time-consuming to replace. They argue that since the Electoral College almost always echoes the result of the popular vote, it is not worth the time and effort to pass the constitutional amendment that would be necessary to change the system completely. They also express concerns about the logistics of a national popular vote. Nationwide recounts in the case of a close election, for instance, would be a massive undertaking.
The Debate Today
Despite the difficulties it poses, the idea of abolishing and replacing the Electoral College is gaining steam. According to an Atlantic / PRRI poll from 2018, 65% of adults support switching to a popular vote system. Additionally, several of the Democratic candidates in the 2020 primary expressed support for abolishing the current system.
However, the chances of entirely changing the system in the near future are slim. Doing so would necessitate a constitutional amendment, which requires support from ⅔ of the House of Representatives, ⅔ of the Senate, and ¾ of the states. This widespread, bipartisan support is unlikely to materialize in the near future.
Recently, several states have adopted a plan that would effectively eliminate the Electoral College without an amendment. Sixteen states plus D.C. have joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, through which they have pledged to commit their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote regardless of who wins in their state. Currently, states in the pact claim a total of 196 electoral votes. The pact will go into effect once states with 74 more electoral votes enact it. At this point, at least 270 electors will have pledged to support the candidate who wins the popular vote, making that candidate president. This method does not technically get rid of the Electoral College; it just modifies how states assign their electoral votes.
In the coming years and elections, this debate will continue to evolve. As it does, it will likely have significant effects on how our voting system, government, and democracy function.