Has the Electoral College Outlived its Purpose?

Perhaps the Electoral College is a victim of its own success. Most of the time it shapes American politics in ways that are beneficial but hard to see. Its effects become newsworthy only when a candidate and his or her political party lose a hard-fought and narrowly decided election.

Trent England | Imprimis, June 2019

In an article I recently read by Trent England in Imprimis, the merits of the Electoral College and the danger of the attacks on and subsequent call to abolish it, spurred me to do some investigating of my own. 

First of all, the Electoral College is a process, not a place. When the framers of the United States Constitution met in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention in the Summer of 1787, debates regarding the election of the president were intense and prolific.

According to England, James Madison’s Virginia Plan—the first draft of what would become the new Constitution—called for “a National Executive to be chosen by the National Legislature.” Debates ensued with Connecticut supporting Madison’s parliamentary system of election while Pennsylvania supported popular election. Virginia argued that popular election was “impractical.” Still other arguments insisted that the National Executive should be elected by the Senate alone.

By the time the delegates reconvened the following day, James Wilson of Pennsylvania “presented a plan to create districts and hold popular elections to choose electors. These electors would then vote for the executive—in other words, an electoral college (England, June 2019). Wilson’s proposal was voted down.

Among other ideas voted down during the Convention included Massachusetts’ proposed election of the President by state governors, others proposed election by state legislatures, along with other variations of the aforementioned. According to England, these ideas, as well as the Virginia Plan’s parliamentary model, were voted down because delegates understood that an executive selected by Congress, or some other legislative or appointed body, would become subservient to that entity. 

Another issue the delegates wrestled with, according to Rob Natelson in a 2017 article, included election of the president by electors elected by the people on a strict population basis. Unless the Electoral College was very large, however, this would require electoral districts that combined states and/or cut across state lines. In that event, state law could not effectively regulate the process. Regulation would fall to Congress, thereby empowering Congress to manipulate presidential elections.

In addition to the foregoing, the framers had to weigh whether a candidate should need a majority of the votes to win or only a plurality— an electoral system in which each voter is allowed to vote for only one candidate and the candidate who polls the most among their counterparts is elected. If a majority, then you have to answer the question, What happens if no candidate wins a majority? On the other hand, requiring only a plurality might result in election of an overwhelmingly unpopular candidate—one who could never unite the country. The prospect of winning by plurality would encourage extreme candidates to run with enthusiastic, but relatively narrow, bases of support (Natelson, September 2017).

As the Convention progressed, it became clear that two popular choices for election of the National Executive were emerging from the debates—election by appointed electors chosen by the people or by popular vote.

Why did the framers of the Constitution choose the Electoral College

The delegates foresaw two distinct problems with the election of the President by popular vote alone. First, people would tend to support candidates from their own states which would give unfair advantage to larger states. Second, states with a higher concentration of voters would come to dominate the outcome.

While direct election would ensure presidential independence from Congress, according to Natelson, election by popular vote alone posed potential problems as well. These same concerns raised during the Constitutional debates are still legitimate to this day.

  • Larger states dictating election results.
  • Greatly increased incentive for electoral corruption— “bogus” or “lost” votes can swing an entire election, not just a single state.
  • Potential for extended recounts that delay inauguration for months.
  • Tendency of  a system of popular vote to punish states that responsibly enforce voter qualifications—because of their reduced voter totals—while benefitting states that drive unqualified voters to the polls.

To decide the argument, a committee of 11 delegates, one from each state present at the Convention, was established. The committee, which included Madison, created the Electoral College and Article II, Section I of the Constitution was adopted on September 4, 1787.

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.

Article II, Section I | United States CONSTITUTION

In simple terms, the president would be chosen be electors appointed from each state by a method determined by the state legislature. It would take a majority to win. If no one received a majority, the Senate—later changed to the House of Representatives—would resolve the election. The following caveats were also included:

  • Federal officials were prohibited from being electors: “But no Senator or Representative, or person holding an Office of Trust under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”
  • Electors were required to cast two ballots, and were prohibited from casting both ballots for candidates from their own state: “The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves.”
  • A deadlock for president would be decided by the House with one vote per state: “…and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately choose by Ballot, one of them for President.”
  • In the event of a deadlock for Vice President, the Senate would decide. “In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall choose from them by Ballot the Vice President.” Under the original system the runner-up in the election became Vice President—the Twelfth Amendment, passed in 1804 required electors to cast separate votes for president and vice president.

How does the Electoral College work

The Electoral College process consist of the selection of electors, the meeting of the electors where they vote for President and Vice President, and the counting of the electoral votes by Congress

The selection of the electors—The selection of electors is a two-part process. First, the political parties of each state choose “slates of potential Electors sometime before the general election.” Second, and this is perhaps the part that confuses many people, “the VOTERS in each state select their state’s Electors by casting their ballots for President.”

In other words, when you cast your vote for President on Election day, you are casting your vote to select your state’s Electors as well. According to The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), “The winning Presidential candidate’s slate of potential Electors are appointed as the state’s Electors—except in Nebraska and Maine, which have proportional distribution of the Electors.

Most states award electoral votes on a winner-takes-all basis, meaning that the candidate to win the most votes in a given state will take all of that state’s electoral votes, as well.

Erin Corbett | Fortune, April 2, 2019

After the presidential election, a Certificate of Ascertainment is prepared by the governor of each state. Essentially, the Certificate lists all the candidates who ran for president along with the names of their potential electors, declares the winning presidential candidate in each state, and shows which electors will represent each state at the meeting of electors.

The meeting of the electors—This meeting takes place on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December following Election Day. The electors meet in their respective states and cast their votes for President and Vice President on separate ballots.

The counting of the electoral votes—The electors count and record the votes and then prepare the state’s Certificate of Vote which is then sent to Congress and the National Archives as part of the presidential election’s official records for each state.

The sitting Vice President, as President of the Senate, then presides over the count and declares the election results—or which persons have been elected President and Vice President of the United States.

How are Electoral Votes Allocated?

Electoral votes are allocated among the states based on the Census. According to NARA,  “Every state is allocated a number of votes equal to the number of senators and representatives in its U.S. Congressional delegation—two votes for its senators in the U.S. Senate plus a number of votes equal to the number of its members in the U. S. House of Representatives.”

Total Electoral Votes: 538      Majority Needed to elect: 270
Image by Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG via Getty Images)

The will of the voters is reflected in the actions of the state electors. These electors are selected by political parties at a state level and in many cases are bound by law to vote in a way consistent with the results of the popular vote.

Michael Ray |How Does the Electoral College Work?

Prior to the 2016 election, there were only four times in U.S. history when a candidate won the presidency despite losing the popular vote: 1824 (John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson), 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilden), 1888 (Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland, and 2000 (George W. Bush over Al Gore.) 2016 became the fifth time in our 230 year history when this has occurred. Proof that the system established by the framers is actually valid and still working.

As a former American History teacher and life-long history lover, I’ll be the first to admit that Civics education in our current educational system is lacking, if not nonexistent in most cases. Thus, many Americans have no idea what the Electoral College process is, why it was established, let alone how it works. Hence, the previous condensed lesson.

Although the slate of potential electors is selected by each political party prior to the election, it is in fact, our votes that determine which electors will actually attend the meeting and cast their ballots. “It is easy for Americans to forget that when we vote for president, we are really voting for electors who have pledged to support the candidate we favor (England, June 2019).”  

What are the pros and cons of the Electoral College process?

As we move closer to the 2020 Election, efforts to overhaul or do away with the Electoral College are ramping up. Critics of the system have called it antidemocratic, maintaining that is it “unseemly for a candidate to win without first winning the popular vote (England, June 2019). Others maintain that the reasons the framers created the Electoral College in the first place are no longer relevant in this day and age.  

There are a number of benefits to the process. Benefits the framers of the Constitution realized. Namely, the framers wished to balance the will of the populace against the tyranny of the majority — in which the voices of the masses can drown out minority interests.

ProCon.org | September 2017

Pros of the Electoral College

1. It ensures that ALL parts of the country are involved in the process. If the election depended solely on popular vote, then candidates could limit campaigning to heavily populated areas or specific regions of the country.

Under the Electoral College system, to win the election, presidential candidates need electoral votes from multiple regions. They are required to campaign on broad platforms that are built with a national rather than regional focus. If anything, this ensures that the candidate elected will actually be serving the needs of the entire country rather than pandering to areas with greater population densities.  

2. It gives minority interests a say in the election.  The Electoral College is a block, or weighed voting system, designed to give more power to states with more votes while still allowing smaller states to have a voice in the election outcome.

Case in point, in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton received 4.3 million more votes than Donald Trump in California. If the state of California were excluded, Trump would have won the popular vote by 1.5 million votes. This is just the scenario the Electoral College is designed to prevent—one large state overriding the votes of other states.

3. It decentralizes presidential elections. The Electoral College process decentralizes presidential electionsvoting takes place within each state. Thus, disputes over fraud or mistakes are contained within individual states rather than taking down the entire ship as it were. At the very least, in cases such as in the 2000 election, the Electoral College contained the disputes to one state—Florida—while Congress endeavored to sort out the mess.

Cons of the Electoral College

1. It gives too much power to swing states. Critics maintain that the current system requires candidates to only pay attention to the limited number of swing states that can be swayed one way or the other. Under the Electoral College system, the two main political parties are virtually assured of winning the electoral votes of certain states—e.g. California always votes Democrat, while Indiana historically votes Republican. Critics argue that because candidates don’t have to worry about the popular votes in those states they are less likely to focus their efforts in those areas.

2. It ignores the will of the people. Currently there are over 300 million people in the U.S., yet, opponents of the Electoral College argue that just 538 people decide who will be president. Critics maintain that the final count of electoral votes rather than popular votes means a candidate may be supported by a minority only and therefore the winner may not be an accurate reflection of the will of the people.

3. It can depress voter turnout in some areas. Critics worry that voters may choose not to vote because they feel like their vote is not going to matter anyway. Take 2016, for example, in the weeks leading up to the election, Hillary Clinton had a consistent 15-20 point lead over Donald Trump in the polls. Media polls consistently showed a difference of 16.2 percentage points in favor of Clinton. In a case like this, critics argue that casting Republican or Independent ballots could appear pointless because Clinton’s win seemed like a foregone conclusion.   

Despite these pros and cons, it is important to remember that our political system is actually a democratic republic rather than a pure democracy and that its strength lies in the limits placed on it—limits that protect the rights of all, minority and majority alike. We exist under a system in which we vote to elect politicians to represent our interests, as well as to protect our Constitution.

Why is this distinction important with regard to the ongoing debate over the Electoral College? From our state legislatures to the U.S. Congress, what matters most is which party holds the majority. The majority party elects the leadership and sets the agenda. In none of these representative chambers does the aggregate popular vote determine who is in charge (England, June 2019).

The measure of our fundamental law is not whether it actualizes the general will—that was the point of the French Revolution, not the American. The measure of our Constitution is whether it is effective at encouraging just, stable, and free government—government that protects the rights of its citizens.

England | Imprimis, June 2019  

In my opinion, this is the one, often overlooked, fact that matters most. Attacks against the Electoral College undermine this system as well as the Constitution itself. Both need to be preserved and protected. Perhaps the best way to do this is through education—helping people understand why it truly matters.

Jennifer N. Fenwick, former American History teacher and author