Since 1787, our Constitution has authorized only one system to elect an American President: the Electoral College. Ever since that time there have been strong criticisms of the system paired with attempts to get rid of it. Most recently, some Democratic 2020 presidential candidates have called for the end of the Electoral College, the most vocal of which being from Senator Elizabeth Warren.
At a town hall in Jackson, Miss., on March 18, Senator Warren stated, “I believe we need a constitutional amendment that protects the right to vote for every American citizen and makes sure that vote gets counted…we need to repeal every one of the voter suppression laws that is out there.” Her remarks prompted fervent applause from the historically black Jackson State University.
What also garnered mainstream attention and sparked another chapter in this debate was her declaration that “every vote matters, and the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting, and that means get rid of the Electoral College.”
Some may wonder what’s so bad about the Electoral College, but there is actually a lot wrong with it. First, the original intent of the system follows several threads: the idea that citizens were too uneducated to be trusted to choose a president, the need for southern slave states to dilute the northern vote and the assumption that voters were not concerned with national issues, and instead voted in the interest of their state.
Unlike in 1787, information is much more widely available today with the rise of national media, public school systems and the internet. The same institutions can be said to have unified the nation’s interests. No longer are citizens voting for a candidate who would serve Georgia or New Hampshire the best, but who would serve the whole country the best.
The founding fathers also didn’t favor the rise of factionalism and, in our case, the two-party system. The intention was for officials to be elected based off ideals, not group affiliation. However, the presence of this system leaves the assurance that it’s either one party or the other, virtually excluding third-parties from contention or even acquiring influence on the national stage.
Another problem is the winner-take-all process of the Electoral College, which awards every state’s Electoral votes to the candidate who wins the majority of that state. Besides Nebraska and Maine, who use a proportional method, every state follows winner-take-all, regardless of how large or small the majority is in each state. This has also led candidates to ignore solid red and blue states in order to focus resources on ones that could go either way. States like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all large electoral prizes, get substantially more attention from Presidential hopefuls than states like Montana, Arkansas and Connecticut because of this.
Ignoring inconveniently placed voters isn’t the college’s worst problem though. Five times in our nation’s history a candidate who won the national popular vote lost the Electoral and thus the presidency. Most recently in 2016, Hillary Clinton received nearly three million more votes than her opponent, President Donald Trump, but did not receive the majority in enough states to place her above the requisite 270 Electoral votes. Earlier, in the 2000 election, Florida’s contested results determined whether George Bush or Al Gore would be President. Ultimately, after the intervention of the Supreme Court, Bush beat Gore by 537 votes in Florida but lost to Gore by over 540,000 votes nationally.
As instances of electoral mishaps like these increase, more support grows for the abandonment of the process entirely, replacing it with the much more common direct popular election.
However, simply abolishing our Electoral College wouldn’t be simple at all. A proposal like this would require significant bipartisan support, which is as highly unlikely. Abolition may not be the answer, but reform is surely on the table. One reform that’s right in front of us is the ghastly winner-take-all system within the college itself. Instead of removing Electoral votes and relying solely on the popular vote, remove the process of doling out every elector in a state to the candidate who won the majority, no matter how small. By allowing the electors to be distributed based off of proportion, like in Nebraska and Maine, the minority in every state will have a voice. Candidates will also be more inclined to give attention to all states as they may earn or lose electors there.
The bottom line is that the outdated Electoral College is in dire need of revisiting. The extreme proposals like throwing the system to the curb are unlikely to happen. However, the real problem of the refinement of the existing process may be what’s needed for the stability and long term health of our democracy.