The election of the United States president has been compared to the World Series of American baseball (Rotunda #7). The baseball team that wins four games out of a possible seven wins the series, not the team that scores the most runs. The same concept is used to elect the president of the United States, with the candidate who wins 270 electoral votes out of 538 being declared the winner rather than the candidate who receives the most popular votes. As a result, this sets the tone for the controversial problems concerning the electoral college and the system used to elect the President of the United States. The electoral college was designed by the framers of the Constitution to be a formula to elect the president of the US. Of course, with the election upset of Gore/Bush & Trump/Clinton, there are those that believe that the electoral college needs at least a modification as it stands to adjust for the changes in America since the inception of the electoral college in 1787. Some groups feel the Electoral College remains the best way to vote for our president, while there are also some who believe that the electoral college should be abolished. “I suspect this whole electoral college issue is due for serious debate in the next Congress” Pulitzer Prize-winning political journalist David S. Broder was quoted (Broder A29). The discrepancies of the recent presidential election have caused our nation to question the efficacy of the electoral college to nominate the people’s choice intensifying the debate over revising the electoral college.
An overview of the Electoral College will be beneficial to appreciate its origins. As noted, the framers of the Constitution did have legitimate reasons for choosing the electoral college and not opting for the two leading election styles of their day. That is; using a traditional direct voting by the popular winner (9) or an election by Congress (5). In the 1780’s America was in her infancy. The Article of the Confederation was the colonist’s way of organizing themselves after declaring independence from Great Britain. Americans were running away from anything that resembled the oppression of a monarchy. It is worthy to note that there was no executive or president under the Confederacy. The founding fathers realized that there were problems with the Articles of the Confederation thus, resulting to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 (10). During the Constitutional Convention, many areas of the US government were formed, including the executive office and the president of the United States. There were those like James Madison, however, that were afraid of a democracy developing factions (Federalist No. 10) as he saw that citizens tend to drift towards those of similar wealth, property size, etc. so he wanted to avoid these alliances forming. The Constitution was designed to ensure “that the office of President will never fall to the fate of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications” writes Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers No. 68. The point of the Electoral College is to preserve “the sense of the people.” At the same time, it aims at ensuring that a president is chosen “by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station. Moreover, it acts under the circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.” The framers felt Congress knew too much and the general population knew too little, so the electoral college became a safeguard between the inhabitants of the United States and the selection of the president.
Another reason that the electoral college was created had to do with a big state – small state compromise (1). When looking back at the first 13 colonies (states), there were tinier states that didn’t want the larger and more populated States getting all the power. The north and the south were also very different in that the Union held many bigger cities with a more educated population in general. On the other hand, the south held more slaves on plantations and had a lot less white male landowners that could even vote. To keep balance and cooperation among the states, the framers of the constitution proposed the system giving each state an electoral vote equal to the number of representatives they have in Congress. Therefore, each state had three electoral votes. To accommodate the slave population of the southern states they devised the 3/5th’s clause (1 & 8) which provided fewer numbers when the state’s representatives would be counted, but then when taxation by populace was considered, this would benefit the southern slave states. As seen in James Madison’s The Federalist No. 54: “The States should feel as little bias as possible to swell or to reduce the number of their estimates…By extending the rule to both (taxation and representation), the States will have opposite interests which will control and balance each other and produce the requisite impartiality.” Now that we have a better grasp of the reason for the formation of the electoral college let’s dig into the debate on its efficacy.
The electoral college has some merit and should be retained in some form but only if certain aspects of it are modified. Currently, the automatic plan, the district plan, and the proportional plan are the three most popular reform proposals (2) These proposals all keep the electoral college, but they do address some shortcomings that are discerned within the electoral college. All of the previously mentioned reform plans eliminate the actual elector and would instead award the electoral vote to the candidate directly. “Faithless elector” is a term used to describe the member of the electoral college that does not vote for the presidential candidate that they were pledged to vote for. “Nearly all Electoral College reform plans would remove even this slim possibility for mischief by eliminating the office of elector” (2) The “barring of the so-called faithless electors” is further supported (Lempert 22). The automatic plan would allocate state electoral votes on an automatic winner-take-all basis to the candidates receiving the highest number of popular votes in a state. As presently followed in Maine and Nebraska. The district plan would automatically award one electoral vote to the winning ticket in each congressional district in each State, but would also assign each State’s two additional “senatorial” electoral votes to the statewide popular vote winners. Finally, the proportional plan would automatically give each State’s electoral votes in proportion to the percentage of the popular vote gained by each ticket (Library of Congress 9). The Constitution was amended to allow for the changes seen in issues around slavery, woman, and age for voting. It indeed is possible to also see this discrepancy between majority vote vs. electoral vote by further amending the Constitution. The problem is getting an amendment that is agreed upon by enough of the States legislatures.
One of the main arguments for keeping the electoral college as it has to with history. Considering that the electoral college has been in effect since the creation of our Constitution in 1787 reveals it is resilient. By keeping the electoral college, the federalism that the founding fathers based the Constitution upon would be maintained (Congressional Digest 1). When all the power is given either to the national level or the state level of government to vote for the president, there is no system of checks and balances that the founding fathers intended to use to protect the new nation from tyrannical rule. Furthermore, to even make a change to the presidential selection process it would require a Constitutional amendment. To achieve this, there has to be an actual president losing the national popular vote yet winning the electoral votes so to become the president. This has only happened five times in US history: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000, and most recently Donald Trump in 2016. If the nation blames this turn of events from the unpopular candidate to the now president onto the electoral college, there is a chance of gaining the two-thirds vote from both houses of Congress. Then it would still require a ratification by three-fourths of the states. The electoral college has been running those who sit in the executive seat for over 200 years. Hence, it proves that the electoral college is working, moreover; of the “over 700 proposed amendments to modify or abolish the electoral college – more than any other subject of constitutional reform” (Nichols 17) none have ever made it to the ratification stage. Another argument for keeping the electoral college as it is would be because it ensures that all parts of the United States are involved in the presidential selection process. Many candidates would only target their campaigns for the densely populated areas so they can get more of the direct popular vote. The electoral college ensures more balance to all the states because they need electoral votes from many regions.
When the unpopular president ends up winning the election, it tends to make Americans question the democracy and demand that their vote counts. Similarly, it has led many to believe that the Electoral College is significantly outdated, archaic (Nichols 16) and cannot possibly reflect each person’s vote. (Rakove 29) ‘Repealing the sections of the Constitution dealing with the Electoral College – Clause 2 of Article II, Section I and the Twelfth Amendment – has been widely advocated for at least 50 years’ (Congressional Digest 8 =#2). By using a national popular vote would allow this straightforward method that is simple, national, and democratic that truly puts the people’s choice in the office with no middle-man (electoral college). There are over 300 million people in America, but the president is voted into office by 538, which does not appear to be very democratic. The founding fathers couldn’t have foreseen modern technology which allows voters to be informed. The electors are not really “free from sinister bias” as Alexander Hamilton intended since the political parties select the electors. Now the elector is expected to support that side whether they agree with that or not. Every single vote would carry the same weight no matter which state the vote is cast from. Then candidates would campaign equally for every State and not just the battleground or swing states – those States that have historically maintained equal support for the candidates of both parties, and are viewed as crucial in deciding the outcome of the election (11). Furthermore, the Republican American that lives in a state that is predominantly democratic will feel as though their vote does count instead of just going through the motions of voting knowing the electoral college is going to mark them down as democratic for their state. The third-party candidates might even now stand a chance against the bipartisan giants.
All of the issues discussed above surrounding how we elect our president look to the Constitution. Whether it is decided that the electoral college is omitted or reformed, it would require an amendment to the Constitution. There has been difficulty in getting the support needed to remove or reform the Electoral College because the founding fathers wrote stringent rules for any changes to the Constitution. Namely two-thirds of House and Senate passing the amendment and then 38 States need to approve (McConnell p.24 & Library of Congress p.1 #4). The founding fathers did, however, give each state the prerogative to choose the method of allocating their electoral vote (Library of Congress p.10). The majority of States allocate their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis (Bolinger p.179). Only “Maine and Nebraska award one electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district and two to the statewide winner.” (Bolinger p 180 & 4). The allotment of a state’s electoral college votes is decided by that State’s legislature. It’s not an amendment and can be done by each state on an individual state-by-state basis.
An up-and-coming movement to sway the way the president is voted into office takes advantage of precisely this as the Constitution allows “States to retain considerable authority concerning various aspects of the system” (2 Library of Congress p.10). The National Popular Vote (NPV) is an interstate compact where the States would agree to award their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote” (1 Boxer p.23). Therefore, this is more like reform of the electoral college but does not require an amendment to the Constitution. Currently, ten States and the District of Columbia have enacted the NPV into law, adding up to 165 electoral votes (1=Boxer p. 25 & 4=Library of Congress p.1). The magic number is 270 so only 105 more electoral votes are needed. There are currently petitions to each county to try and get more States to sign on with the NPV (Hendrickson p 28). The NPV has the distinct advantage of electing to the presidency the American’s favored choice.
The discrepancies of the recent presidential election have caused our nation to question the efficacy of the electoral college to nominate the people’s choice. As a result, it has intensified the debate over revising the electoral college. Even though the concept of the electoral college was deemed relevant for its timeframe, there are many concerns. Likewise, that brings to light a host of issues to contemplate changing, omitting, or leaving the electoral college. When you realize the electoral college has allowed the unpopular candidate to win the election for the fifth time, there is a good reason to question the way we vote in our president. First, there is hardship whenever a change to the Constitution is considered. Whether to modify or omit entirely it takes conviction. The amendments made in the past regarding slaves, women and the age to vote were all successfully pushed through Congress and then approved by enough States to establish a permanent revision to the Constitution. Legislatures need to take serious notice of what the population is endorsing since a lot are voted into their office by the same public. Second, people’s vote’s matter and many American’s feels as though their vote has no impact. The only States that get on the campaign trail are the “swing state” or “battleground states” that could make a difference if the candidate can persuade the voters to his party and win the electoral votes (4). Also when voters feel like their vote does not matter since the State is already committed to one side, they do not bother voting at all, so voter turnout is affected. That is the crucial element that must be supported in the new election process of the president that every vote will equally matter and be similarly counted and have equal weight.
(1) = “The Pros & Cons of the Electoral College System” Congressional Digest January 2017, Volume 96, Issue 1, p. 18-31
(2) = “Electoral College Reform: Federal, State, and Nongovernmental Proposals” Congressional Digest January 2017, Volume 96, Issue 1, p.18-11,32.
(4) = “The Electoral College Debate: Preserve, Abolish, or Reform?” Congressional Digest January 2017, Volume 96, Issue 1, p.1
(5) = “Origins of the Electoral College” US Election Atlas the Electoral College – Origin and History 11-9-2017
(7) = https://cato.org “How the Electoral College Works – And Why It Works Well” by Ronald D. Rotunda. November 13, 2000.
(8) = www.heritage.org “The Heritage Guide to the Constitution” – Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3. The Three-fifths Clause. Erik. M. Jensen.
(9) = https://www.minnpost.com “Why the Constitution’s Framers didn’t want us to directly elect the President” by Erik Black. 10/17/2012.
(10) = https://courses lumen learning.com “The Constitutional Convention” /boundless-political science/Chapter/the-constitutional Convention
(11) = https://www.huffingtonpost.com “Why We Should Abolish the Electoral College” by Tyler Lewis, The Blog, 01/12-2016
(12) = “Democracy Denied: The Electoral College Lets Losers like Trump Become President” by John Nichols, Progressive, December2016/January2017, p.15-18.
(A29) Broder, David, Washington Post, October 21,2004, p. A29