In the late 1700s, the Founding Fathers needed a method to hold fair elections across their 13 states. At the time, it would take days or even weeks to traverse the country, so they decided that each state would hold its own election, and the results of their elections combined would determine the President and Vice President of the country. In the system, dubbed the “Electoral College”, each state has a certain amount of votes, determined by its total representation in Congress, and each state casts its votes based on the candidate that wins the popular vote there. While appropriate for the time period, this winner-take-all method has received major criticism in recent years for its results that don’t always line up with the popular vote of the states.
One of the main arguments for the Electoral College is that it gives more representation to smaller, typically more conservative, states. It would prevent candidates from focusing on major population centers and instead force them to take their campaigns all across the country, benefiting all Americans. While this is great in theory, as we’ve seen in the past all the Electoral College really does is shift the areas of focus for the candidates; instead of going to areas like Los Angeles and New York City, they instead go to battleground states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. This does little to alleviate the problem of unbalanced attention, as many Americans living in “safe” states never get any visits.
On top of the representation issues, the Electoral College is severely lacking in practicality and increases the complexity of the election. American politics is a mess to begin with, and the fact that the President is not decided through the popular vote makes it even more confusing to first-time voters and others who are not in the know. Additionally, it may give some voters the false impression that their vote doesn’t matter and they shouldn’t bother coming to the polls; which is concerning as the United States has some of the lowest voting turnout compared to other developed nations. Besides the issues it creates for voters, it also extends the length of the election, and, by extension, the “lame duck” period for the existing President. Electors in each state must meet in mid-December to officially cast their votes, which are then ratified by Congress in early January (“Electoral College Timeline of Events”). This process is largely formalities, but it allows the incumbent President to have more unchecked power than usual, as the election has concluded and it would be improbable for an impeachment trial to take place over the holidays. The Electoral College also runs the risk of faithless electors (people who don’t cast their vote for the state’s winner) which opens avenues for individuals to subvert the decision of the American people.
In recent history, there have been multiple notable Electoral College upsets, where the results of the College don’t line up with the popular vote of the people. Most recently, in 2016 Donald Trump comfortably won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote by a razor-thin 500,000 votes but managed to scrape by 271 Electoral College votes (“2000 Electoral College Results”). In these cases, the people who the majority of America chose to be their President didn’t end up receiving the office, which isn’t entirely democratic. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the Electoral College by 400 votes (“1980 Electoral College Results”), an absolute landslide victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter. By solely looking at the Electoral map, you may think that very few people voted for Carter, but in fact, he only lost by 8 million votes. The College has the dangerous ability to give false conclusions about the voice of the American people.
Over the years, various solutions to properly implement popular choice voting have been proposed. At first, one may think “why not just make a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College?” But unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Ratifying an amendment takes an insane amount of bipartisan support across the country, and right now the Republican party is not willing to give up the one thing allowing them to claim the White House. While we may be stuck with the Electoral College for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to play by its rules. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or NaPoVoInterCo for short, is a tactic that has been gaining traction which aims to use the Electoral College to implement a popular vote system. When a state signs on to the compact, they pledge to give 100% of their Electoral College votes to the national popular vote winner, regardless if that person won the popular vote in their state. Currently, it’s amassed 196 pledged votes (“Status of National Popular Vote Bill in Each State”), and will only go into effect once it reaches the 270 vote threshold that is required to win the Electoral College. It remains to be seen whether the compact is Constitutional, but if/when it goes into effect it will most certainly be challenged in the courts.
A tangentially related solution to dealing with the Electoral College is voting choice reform. As it currently stands, in most states voters only select one candidate per seat on the ballot. This method harms the variety of third parties in our country as the majority of voters don’t want to risk their vote on a party that has little chance of grabbing a seat. It keeps the two major political parties in power, even though a voter’s ideological beliefs may be better represented by one of the smaller parties. In response to this, there are two different new methods of voting which are gaining popularity: ranked-choice voting and approval voting. Ranked-choice voting is where voters rank their candidates in order of preference, and if initially no candidate wins a 50% majority they then tabulate the second-choice candidate for voters. Approval voting, on the other hand, allows voters to bubble in as many candidates as they’d like, and the person with the most votes at the end wins. Both these methods would give third parties a fighting chance at gaining power, and third party politicians are more willing to remove the Electoral College than establishment politicians.
As mentioned earlier, some critics of removing the Electoral College mention that candidates would only focus on population hubs and not the smaller cities of America. So let’s take a look at how many metropolitan areas it would take for a candidate to reach 50%. According to U.S. Census Bureau information from 2019, there are 384 officially recognized metropolitan areas in the United States (“Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas Totals: 2010–2019”). As shown by the table below, a candidate would have to receive 100% of the vote in the top 40 areas to win a majority of the popular vote. (In reality, candidates would likely have to win many more than that since these areas tend to have diverse beliefs and don’t flock to one party in particular.) These areas are all over the country, therefore a candidate couldn’t stay in a single geographic area as they do now. Additionally, it gives the people in larger cities, which tend to contribute more to the American economy, a bigger voice than they usually do.
In conclusion, the Electoral College is an outdated system that lacks to adequately represent the modern complexity of the American electorate. And although the complete removal of it is unlikely in our current political climate, we can develop and implement strategies to sufficiently give the American people a say nonetheless.
“1980 Electoral College Results.” National Archives, 16 Dec. 2019, www.archives.gov/electoral-college/1980.
“2000 Electoral College Results.” National Archives, 28 Nov. 2019, www.archives.gov/electoral-college/2000.
“Electoral College Timeline of Events.” U.S. National Archives, 2020, www.archives.gov/electoral-college/key-dates.
“Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas Totals: 2010–2019.” The United States Census Bureau, 18 June 2020, www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/popest/2010s-total-metro-and-micro-statistical-areas.html.
“State Population Totals: 2010–2019.” The United States Census Bureau, 30 Dec. 2019, www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/popest/2010s-state-total.html.
“Status of National Popular Vote Bill in Each State.” National Popular Vote, 5 Nov. 2020, www.nationalpopularvote.com/state-status.