In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote while losing in the Electoral College. This made her the fifth candidate to have that distinction, following Al Gore’s loss in 2000.
There’s been a growing movement aimed at eliminating the Electoral College entirely, and converting the country to a popular vote standard. There are certainly reasons to consider the concept; that many individual Americans feel as though their vote is valueless due to living in a solidly partisan state is a compelling one. Perceived disenfranchisement often leads to actual loss of power as people lose their will to participate in a voting system that goes out of their way to exclude them year after year.
But is the Electoral College broken, perhaps beyond repair? In the wake of the 2016 election, prominent progressives angrily – publicly – blamed the Democratic party’s internal machinery for the loss, claiming that the selected candidate should never have been run in this contest. The victor, Donald Trump, is so very unpopular that violent protests erupted in cities across the nation.* What this tells me is that the system of primaries must be fundamentally flawed — and I’m not alone in this; both parties have significantly revised their presidential selection mechanisms based on the lessons learned in the past two decades.
More About The Primaries
It’s quite arguable that the primary system itself is almost entirely responsible for the majority of voter apathy. After all, the field of candidates, usually quite broad at the beginning, passes through Iowa and New Hampshire and is suddenly thinned out to just two or three — and that based on the opinions of very few people indeed — around 2% of the population. Before the primary contests even reach the more important “swing” states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, one candidate has usually been anointed by each party. The dynamic of that match-up will inevitably influence the results of the upcoming election more drastically than any other factor.
A second problem, especially now with the greatly extended primary season, is that voter fatigue often sets in before even the primaries are over. The news focuses on the candidates all day every day, and people simply get sick of hearing about them. There’s a growing disgust in this country toward all politicians, and given how much over-exposure they get it’s not surprising — no matter that the ill will should probably be focused instead on the media producers who choose to cover the extended event.
Thirdly, there’s a strange and arcane process, different in each state, which determines which candidate that state will support at the convention and with how many delegates. The rules are so very complex and contradictory that, often, even national organizers lose track of who does what and how, and every state does things differently. This certainly contributes to voter dissatisfaction, especially with the lack of popular control over the Democratic Party’s “superdelegates”. (Many Republicans were wishing for a similar system at the last convention, but I digress.)
Streamlining the primaries, then, would seem to make the most sense for all concerned. The primary season should probably be vastly reduced, with most states choosing within a very brief period. And, above all, the entire process will need to be made completely transparent before people start trusting it again.
These changes won’t necessarily provide us with the best candidates, or even, necessarily, better candidates than the ones we get now. They will, however, provide at the least the illusion of greater voter control over the nomination process.
As I mentioned above, one of the most obvious objections to the institution of the Electoral College is that, as a result of the system, the popular vote does not directly determine the results of the election. There are other perceived problems, and in order to explore them we’ll delve a bit into history.
Originally, the Electoral College was designed as one of our many checks and balances, controlling and dispensing power in order to give the people the opportunity to correct the most egregious errors before they got out of hand. The College was intended to serve multiple purposes, including handling the death or disqualification of candidates during the election process. It was also designed to act as a safety net against demagoguery, as well as a backstop for the oligarchic elites of our nation’s early days.
It’s hardly surprising that some of these motives aren’t acceptable to the modern American morality, nor that some want to change it. This isn’t the first time that’s happened; over time, the Electoral College has been altered rather drastically, and today’s version only vaguely resembles in form or function that which was initially created.
It’s not surprising that the largest of these changes was introduced after the hotly-contested Election of 1824, the first occasion when the candidate who polled the most votes failed to win the Presidency. It was a unique election in our history, however, with only a single party which produced four distinct major candidates (and several minor ones). The College, functioning precisely as it had been intended to, failed to reach a decision and turned the election over to the House of Representatives. The outcry that followed the House’s eventual choice was so very great that most states reacted extremely in order to prevent such a divide in the future, adopting the modern “winner take all” model seen in forty-eight of the fifty states today.
It is, in point of fact, this very alteration which has removed most of the apparent power from the individual voter. In the average presidential election, about forty of the fifty states vote (for the most part) strictly along party lines, depending on how urban or rural the state happens to be. Thus, California and New York, which have massive urban centers, vote consistently Democrat, whereas the far more rural South and Midwest are traditionally Republican strongholds. As a result, the rural residents in urban states (and vice-versa) are often disenfranchised in effect even if not in law; let them vote as they may, Maryland will always go Democrat regardless.
This same effect creates in turn several other problems. General voter apathy coupled with low turnout and volunteerism are frequently seen in the most party-stable states, which in turn causes Congressional and state representation to be likewise undervalued by the electorate. Additionally, it is often argued that the present system conceals evidence of internal voter suppression by state institutions, as the final tally grants the same electoral delegate count no matter how few actually turn out at the polls. Thus, states have no direct incentive to ensure their populations vote, and neither do the individuals.
It is often argued that the College removes power from third parties; however, there is compelling reason to believe that this is more readily attributable to a lack of proportional representation, and that the actual fault is the reliance on plurality as a deciding factor. It is, however, beyond debate that the present system grants unequal voting power to citizens depending on where they reside, as smaller states have more electoral votes per capita, territories have none regardless of their population, and the so-called “swing states”, the ten or so with the greatest volatility, often decide the elections alone without regard to the remainder of the country (and therefore attract the most candidate and, inevitably, Executive attention).
Much attention has been given to the phenomenon of “Rogue Electors”, which are delegates to the College who fail to vote in the manner to which they had pledged. This is its own problem, however, and it’s easily fixed; several states have adopted measures to reduce or even eliminate the chance of this happening. In actual fact, though, such a phenomenon only very rarely occurs, which is why most states haven’t bothered addressing it.
One proposed solution that has garnered widespread support among state legislatures is the forming of a pact, such that each state would pledge their delegates irrevocably to the winner of the popular vote contest. The idea is that, once the total electoral votes of these states passes the halfway mark of 270, the pact would effectively end the power of the Electoral College while remaining technically within the bounds set by the Constitution. However, it must be acknowledged that every state’s laws would present their own challenges to this practice, especially as even a single rogue state could derail the procedure.
Another group, more grass-roots in nature, favors the abolition of the College through Constitutional amendment. This faction has long been active, but it never achieves substantial support among the populace. It does tend to receive lip service during Congressional campaigns (which are not affected), primary season, and immediately after any hotly-contested general election. To be sure, no single candidate has enough power to make this happen.
One less extreme method of addressing the inequalities is the re-introduction of awards proportionately by Congressional district. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, have systems of awarding electors based on the winners in each distinct region of that state. Similar systems have been proposed for several other states, but because it’s a far less drastic solution, it gets as much less attention in the press. Apparently, it’s not dramatic enough — though, in its own way, it would be far more effective than even the 270 pact.
Voters like simple, drastic solutions. Even though most complex situations call for a complicated approach, very few people vote for any policy that isn’t simple. This is why populist politicians, hoping to appeal to their base, always advocate the simple and direct, and it’s why after they get elected, they never seem to do what they promised. (It’s also true that what they promise to do is usually very stupid in practice — but again, I digress.)
Arguments In Favor Of The Electoral College
The Electoral College as it now stands does still serve several useful purposes, and it’s important that these be considered in any serious discussion of the amendment or abolishment of the institution. (While these are not all positions I agree with, I’ll do my best to present them as such. A couple I do believe in; you’ll probably be able to tell which.)
It was originally intended in large part as a barrier to mob rule, in order to prevent such excesses — horrors — as were seen in the Terror in revolutionary France at about the time the Constitution was composed. While there would be significant backlash should the College act contrary to its instructions, it is yet possible that it could serve as a redoubt against violent or extreme change due to a severely contentious election. It’s notable that, even in that Election of 1860 which precipitated the Civil War, the electors took no such action.
While the disproportional awarding of electors to smaller states (due to their higher per-capita level of Congressional representation in the Senate) is often seen as a negative, it is apparent that the Founders intended for this to be the case. The structure of the Senate itself is a function of the value of the interests of states as collective entities, and so long as that body exists in its present form, it is to be presumed that the original intent still has value, that the interests of the states remain valid.
One of the lesser objections to the Electoral College is that it’s unnecessarily complicated, its workings secretive and obscure. Proponents of the present system, however, will argue that its continued existence acts to preserve the sovereignty of the several states and the Federal character of the government; in the absence of this body, the nation would tend toward an extremely powerful, centralized, and quite massive government little different from that of other countries. Power left in the hands of the states is local power, and as a result it will inevitably be more equitably and wisely employed in the interests of the local citizens.
Voter fraud is another problem that’s far less common than people think, and one of the reasons for this is the existence of the Electoral College. Were there an action of voter suppression in a single state, or instead the massive casting of fraudulent votes in a small area, the College contains and therefore reduces the potential impact of any such fraud. If it did not exist, the motivation to try and steal precincts would be much higher. Lest people think this a problem of the past, let it be remembered that such events as the Battle of Athens and the Chicago Affair in the first Kennedy election are not all that far in the past.
The most compelling advantage tied to the existence of the Electoral College, however, is its relative simplicity. Consider: The election just past was one of the most hotly contested in living memory, and the results are extremely close. It’s estimated that only 92% of the vote was reported by noon on the following day (due to the increasingly high number of absentee ballots over the last few years), and yet the final decision had been reported with confidence the previous night. As the ballots continued to be tallied over the next several weeks, the percentage of the popular vote which each candidate could claim edged up and down, and it was even possible that one or another of the narrow-margin states might have change their result. However, due to the nature of the Electoral College, the winning candidate was certain.
Imagine if you will, especially in an election cycle as bitter as this one, what the impact would be of a “too close to call” result. Marches and more violent protests would become commonplace as time passed, and as the numbers remained close, tension would continue to increase. Poll workers and election judges would face personal threats in some areas, and the temptation toward corruption would certainly intensify.
Instead, we now have a contest that is decided quickly and even somewhat painlessly. A single day is devoted to the activity of the vote and the following night is spent on the counting process — and that’s about all. For those who clearly remember the contested election in 2000, a rather civil event by comparison, it should be quite apparent that our present form of representation in the Electoral College has a great deal to recommend it, and that any alteration of the current system would require substantial changes in the way we cast and count ballots in order to maintain our long tradition of a peaceful transfer of power.
The Bottom Line
Look, there’s a lot wrong with our present election system, and few know this better than the politicians themselves. They’re being re-elected in many cases only as a result of these very flaws in the system, and so they have no vested motivation to effect change. However, growing dissatisfaction among the American voting public makes such change inevitable.
But it’s important to make change responsibly, with full knowledge of the system being changed and of and the impact of those alterations on the election and representative structure of the nation. This is a complex issue; as a result, no simple answer can possibly be the right one.
This has been only the most basic and superficial treatment of the details; there is so very much more to each of the issues I mentioned (and several that I didn’t). It’s worth your time to research more on the subject, especially if you have strong feelings.
I would recommend reading the following works for a start:
- the Constitution and its amendments
- “A More Perfect Constitution”, Larry Sabato
- the text of, and discussion surrounding, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact
- the Federalist Papers, particularly #68, and also the Anti-Federalist
- Nate Silver’s 2014 article on the subject
I’ve been asked several times to present my own personal view on this subject. So here, in all it’s glory:
The Electoral College was designed as one of our layers of checks and balances. It has a purpose — oligarchical, yes, but not an evil one. It’s a way to protect us from the tyranny of pure democracy, the whim of the mob.
It needs repair, not removal. If it’s to be removed, we’d need to replace it with something else that’s as or more effective. And, try as I might, I can’t think of anything that would do the job half as well.
NOTE: *The protests mentioned above were not spontaneous. Instead, separate Progressive groups within the Democratic Party and in particular the Jill Stein presidential campaign used their election structures to promote and organize the marches, highway blockages, and other protests. The core Democratic machinery exacerbated the problem somewhat by setting up a series of bloodless support rallies at the same time, which in effect served as organizing grounds for the subsequent unrest. It cannot be ignored that there was a vast pool of legitimate anger, fear, and disaffection on which to draw, but still, one should not confuse these protests with self-directed or spontaneous actions.
Excellent article, John. I often wonder if students are getting a proper civics education.these days. Ok, I’m an old fart but I got this stuff in high school so am surprised that so many people do not recognize the necessity of checks and balances in our political system.
Thank you, Lance.
I’m fairly sure they’re not still teaching civics, which is a tremendous shame. People just don’t understand this stuff, and it’s basic, fundamental to their lives.