Stop me if you've heard this one before.
Abolish the Electoral College.
It’s become a common refrain in modern politics, at least among young people and those left-of-center. Even though the topic is unoriginal, the question of how we elect the President of the United States is still important. Additionally, if we ever hope to change our electoral system, we need to change our constitution or at the very least numerous state laws. Such a feat requires a lot of support and therefore lots of justification.
The impetus for a change is obvious; the Electoral College overrules the fundamental concept that whoever has the most support amongst voters should win. Five times in American history, the candidate with the most votes has lost because of the Electoral College. Two of these incidents happened recently—in 2000 and 2016—and we are likely to see similar upsets in the near future due to increased polarization. Instead of electing the person who has the most support among the American people, our current system allows a minority of voters to impose their will on everyone else by a quirk in the rules.
Like many other structures in American government, the Electoral College is an anti-democratic system that we have awkwardly tried to hammer democracy into.
Although it doesn’t matter which specific party it benefits, the fact that the Electoral College has given this outsized power to the Republicans is undeniable. The two recent elections where the popular vote was denied saw the victories of George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump. Looking forward, there is no real concern that Democrats will be able to take the White House with a minority of votes, but it is very possible that Trump repeats his victory without getting the most support. No party should have this power, whether it’s the Democrats or Republicans. One common defense for the Electoral College is that it can stop the “tyranny of the majority,” but our system consistently allows one specific minority to overrule the plurality and impose their President on everyone else. The power to occupy the government against the wishes of the people is much more tyrannical than any popular vote.
The Electoral College also undermines the democratic principle of “one person one vote.” Electoral votes are awarded to states not according to population but according to congressional seats. Every state gets two votes for each Senator and at least one vote for House Representatives. In effect, this means smaller states get a higher number of votes per person than larger states. A voter in Wyoming, therefore, controls a larger share of an Electoral College vote than someone in New York. The Wyoming voter’s ballot is worth four times as much as the New Yorker’s. In effect, the Electoral College means some voters are more important than others, which is undemocratic. To be fair, though, some statistical analyses claim that our system gives large state voters more power. However, if this claim is true, it is still unequal and unfair.
The Electoral College does not protect rural voters or small states from being ignored. What it really does is coerce presidential campaigns into focusing on only a handful of swing states.
These democratic deficits date back to the founding of the country. Originally, regular voters would not cast ballots for Presidential candidates at all. Electors (the actual people in the College who cast the deciding votes for President) were intended to act independently and vote at their own discretion. The Electoral College, presumably full of wealthy, well-educated elites from the states, would choose a President for the rest of the country. It was not a democratic process, it was an elitist one—an exercise in enlightened despotism or philosopher kingship. Like many other structures in American government, the Electoral College is an anti-democratic system that we have awkwardly tried to hammer democracy into. It is, at its core, broken.
Some advocates of the Electoral College support indirect elections and the idea of unequal votes because it preserves the “federal character” of the country. The College elects the President through states, not through people. A person committed to traditional federalism likes this concept. However, is it really appropriate to continue this tradition? If we asked people whether the President represents American states or the American people, I have a hunch they would say the latter. As they should—the role of the federal government has changed since its founding in the 18th century. Congress and the President no longer exist to mediate the differences among state establishments and carry out miscellaneous policies outside the bounds of state borders. The modern national government is just as relevant to people’s lives as state governments; sometimes it is even more relevant. It exists to serve people, not states; it should similarly be elected by people, not states. I would much rather live in a country where the chief executive represents real people instead of arbitrary land masses.
One often-ignored flaw in the Electoral College is what happens when no candidate gets a majority of the electoral votes. Under that scenario, the House of Representatives decides the next President—but not by a regular vote. Instead, each state gets one vote, which will be cast according to what each state’s delegation of Congresspeople decide. An immediate problem here is that voters from Washington, DC automatically get kicked out of the election. They’re not a state, so they have no votes in this contingency. Another clear issue is that the backup plan for the Electoral College is even more undemocratic and removed from voters than before. It gets worse, though. 26 state delegations need to agree on a candidate, but if the vote splits 25-25 then the House fails to elect a President. If that happens, the Senate then decides by a simple majority who the next Vice-President will be; since there is still no President, the Vice-President-Elect assumes the presidency through the line of succession. Again, this contingency ignores the near-million people from DC and takes the election out of voters’ direct hands. It's even possible for the current Vice-President to break the tie and install himself as President. Imagine the outrage and unrest that would occur if these insane procedures were ever used. All of this complicated nonsense is avoided if we just take a national vote.
The worst part is that these contingencies could take effect this November. Take a look at the electoral map below. That map is a completely plausible outcome of the election, and it would unleash the nightmare scenario just described. As presidential elections have gotten closer and closer and voters more and more polarized, Electoral College ties have become increasingly possible. While the actual usage of the contingency plans would probably cause enough backlash to abolish the Electoral College, it would probably be wiser to avoid that fiasco outright.
Another argument from those who support the Electoral College is that the system prevents cities from dominating elections. However, the College does no such thing, and replacements would not create this problem. The majority of Americans are not city-dwellers—they are suburbanites. Fifty-five percent of Americans live in suburbs, 31 percent live in cities, and 14 percent live in rural communities. Furthermore, suburbs are closely-contested political landscapes. No political party has a strong hold on suburbs, and Democrats and Republicans have each held the plurality of support at different points in the last few decades.
The focus of a non-Electoral College campaign would be suburbs, not cities. Because suburbs have no strong political lean, though, candidates would be forced to create coalitions that included cities or rural areas. If a candidate tried to win support solely from cities, they would lose handily. Even if a Democratic candidate tried to appeal to only urban and suburban voters, it is likely they would lose. That would give them only a fraction of city and suburban voters totaling just over 45% of the electorate. They would need to expand their coalition to either rural voters or more right-leaning voters in the cities or suburbs (whose views overlap with rural voters). Earning support from voters across demographic areas would be a prerequisite for winning after the Electoral College is abolished. In contrast to naysayers’ claims, a reformed electoral system would not let urban voters control the White House.
We can see more evidence for this fact in the current system. All but four states in America are urban-majority (although this definition combines cities and suburbs). Nationwide, 80.7 percent of the country lives in an urban area, and swing states have similar numbers. Florida has an even higher urbanization rate at 91.2 percent. The Rust Belt states range from Pennsylvania at 78.7 percent to Wisconsin at 70.2 percent. No matter what the specific number, these are all incredibly urban-dominated states. However, candidates today still hold rallies and court voters in rural areas. If holding a national popular vote would lead urban areas to crowd out rural ones, why would the same not hold true for states with similar demographics? The answer is that the same demographic factors that prevent city domination on the national level exist on the state level.
And if you’re still holding out and saying that you don’t want metropolitan areas (cities and suburbs) to have even their limited dominance, then you shouldn’t support the Electoral College. First, letting a minority impose a President on everyone else is not a reasonable response to this concern. Secondly, because individual states have similar demographic breakdowns to the entire country, holding semi-separate elections for each state just obscures metropolitan power—it does not actually stop it. This leads into the next point: the Electoral College does not do what its supporters claim it does.
It’s clear that our current electoral system does not truly protect small or rural states. However, other mechanisms in our government do fulfill that purpose.
The Electoral College does not protect rural voters or small states from being ignored. What it really does is coerce presidential campaigns into focusing on only a handful of swing states. This handful of states (no more than 10) receive around 75 percent of all campaign spending. In 2016, almost all the campaign events were held in just 11 states, and a majority of events were held in just four states: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. It’s not that these states are unimportant, but why should any handful of any states suck up all the attention? Additionally, these are not small states. The smallest, North Carolina, is the ninth most-populated state in the country. Florida is the third-largest. Most of the Rust Belt states that Trump flipped last time and are in convention now are in the top ten list of largest states. Despite the unequal weighting of voting power across states, the Electoral College does not put small states at the forefront of elections—it just slightly alters which big states are relevant. After all, when was the last time presidential campaigns seriously went after voters in Montana or Rhode Island? The Electoral College just makes the interests of certain regions more important than others in a completely arbitrary way. If we removed it, politicians would no longer be able to take small-state votes as a given; they would have to work for them.
These problems exist under the current political climate, but it can get worse if the political landscape changes. For example, if Texas were to flip blue, presidential elections would basically be over. Republicans could win the Rust Belt, Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona for the rest of time and never win the presidency. It gets even more absurd. Under our current system, candidates can become President by winning just the 11 largest states. The reason why that doesn’t happen currently isn’t because of the Electoral College; it’s because of our current political differences. A situation where Texas flips or the biggest states vote one way might not seem likely now, but we are talking about the future. Proponents of the Electoral College want it to continue forever, so it’s very plausible we could see a situation where the largest states start to vote one way. The only reason the Electoral College doesn’t let big states run away with elections now is random chance—not good design.
It’s clear that our current electoral system does not truly protect small or rural states. However, other mechanisms in our government do fulfill that purpose. The Senate, with equal representation for every state, gives small states way more power despite their low population. Senate rules also require 60 Senators’ approval to even vote on most bills, so it is very easy for even a few Senators to exert influence over the chamber. The House of Representatives also guarantees representation of rural areas, in effect. A brief look at congressional district maps reveals that many Congresspeople are elected by rural communities. Since these rural districts are also reliable Republican areas, the House is full of safe seats for rural voters. This trend allows rural politicians to build seniority and accrue power on congressional committees. The composition of Congress creates a much better system for protecting small states and rural citizens, and it does so without letting a minority of voters overrule the country and impose their President on everyone else.
If you still want to bolster the position of small states and rural communities in the presidential election, there are better methods. For example, we could have a runoff election, where there are two possible rounds of voting. In the first round, we take a simple popular vote. However, the person with the most votes only wins if they also fulfill certain requirements. These secondary goals could be winning a certain number of states or winning an all-out majority of voters. If the candidate did not win the most votes and fulfill these requirements, we would have a second round of voting with only the top two vote-winners competing; the winner of the second round becomes President. Such a system would encourage candidates to build broad coalitions including both big and small states. It could fulfill the role that Electoral College supporters want without allowing a minority coalition to overrule everyone else. If you want to get rid of the multiple voting rounds part of runoff voting, we could use ranked-choice voting. Without getting into too much detail, this style would allow the same effect of multi-round voting with only one election day and one ballot.
While the replacement of the Electoral College could take multiple forms, it is clear that our current system is broken, unrepresentative, and politically biased. Creating a more democratic system for electing the President is necessary, and it could be done in a few ways.
The most obvious would be a constitutional amendment. Amendments would make it easier to create a runoff or ranked choice voting system, and having the new mechanism approved by the entire country (amendments require the approval three-fourths of the States) would give it more legitimacy. The downside, of course, is that amendments are very hard to pass.
An alternative plan is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Because the constitution is very lenient on how states can choose Electors for the College (technically, states could appoint Electors without holding any vote at all), state governments can decide to award their electoral votes based on the national vote instead of state vote totals. That idea is what the compact is based on.
Member states of the compact have passed laws that will award their Electors to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote; these laws take effect whenever enough states join in to get to 270 electoral votes, the majority. Since its creation in 2006, 16 states and 196 electoral votes have joined the compact. With only 74 votes to go, this compact could de facto abolish the Electoral College within this decade or even by 2024.
The compact can only create a simple plurality voting system, not runoffs or ranked-choice voting, but a popular vote is much more democratic than the broken Electoral College. Since it requires no amendment process, it is also much more obtainable.
With the failures of the Electoral College clear and the solutions at hand, the time is now to reform our Presidential elections. We can create a more democratic, representative electoral system free of partisan bias, practical failings, and arbitrarily-focused campaigns. After two and a half centuries, it’s time to abolish the Electoral College.
Katharine Sciackitano is a second-year Economics major in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is Editor for Economics at the Agora.
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