Big question: Why do we still have the Electoral College?

Established in 1787, the Electoral College is as old as the U.S. Constitution. Marquette Magazine asked Dr. Paul Nolette, assistant professor in the department of political science, why, after 225 years, we still use the Electoral College system to elect our president instead of the popular vote?

Turn on your favorite TV news program and you’re likely to hear about how each presidential candidate is faring among “Wal-Mart Moms,” “NASCAR Dads,” or another critical voting group. As Americans were reminded in 2000, however, this presidential election will ultimately be decided by the 538 members of the Electoral College. Why is the Electoral College part of the Constitution? And why does it still exist today?

During the debates over the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton’s defense of the Electoral College suggested that electors would bring greater wisdom to presidential selection. “A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations,” he wrote in “Federalist #68.” Several of the Constitution’s framers viewed the Electoral College as a protection of state power. Individual states would send electors who would presumably prevent the election of a candidate threatening to centralize power in the federal government.

Many of the original justifications for the Electoral College have less force today. Other constitutional features meant to protect the states have since changed. The 17th Amendment, for example, shifted the selection of senators from state legislatures to popular election. The notion that electors have better deliberative capacity than the general populace is now passé, especially since electors today are partisan activists who commit themselves to a candidate well before Election Day. So why do we keep the Electoral College?

One argument is that the Electoral College ensures more attention to less populous states otherwise at risk of being ignored by presidential candidates. If people directly elected the president, candidates would focus their attention on population-rich states like California, New York and Texas rather than smaller states such as New Mexico, Nevada and Wisconsin. The problem is that under the current system, the vast majority of states are already ignored by candidates — including not only most of the smallest but several of the largest as well. The lion’s share of the attention goes to an increasingly small number of swing states that could realistically favor either candidate. This may be to our benefit here in the Badger State, but not so for those in Nebraska, Rhode Island or any of the 40 other non-competitive states.

Perhaps a better contemporary argument for the Electoral College is that it has a tendency to produce clear winners. This contrasts with the popular vote, which remains relatively close in nearly all presidential contests. In 2008, for example, Obama won only 53 percent of the popular vote but more than two-thirds of the electoral vote. The Electoral College, as it typically does, helped to magnify the scope of the incoming president’s victory. For someone taking on the highest-profile job in the world, this additional legitimacy boost may be no small thing.

Comments from Original Story

Comment by Mary Popovich at Nov 07 2012 01:48 pm

“The Electoral College, as it typically does, helped to magnify the scope of the incoming president’s victory. For someone taking on the highest-profile job in the world, this additional legitimacy boost may be no small thing.”

This seems to me to be a smoke and mirrors argument. The popular vote in the last few elections have been very close. Regardless of the “victory” in the Electoral College, the country is still divided, and seems to be getting even more divided with each presidential election.

My own experience shows that there is less discussion of politics among individuals. Increasingly people talk only to those who are like-minded. Anger prevents us from listening to the perspectives of others. We are entrenched in our positions and ever less willing to compromise.

Comment by Paul Nolette at Nov 08 2012 01:06 pm


I think your point is largely true, and on its own the Electoral College is certainly no panacea for deeper polarization. There is something to be said for decisiveness, however. Without the Electoral College, there’s a good chance Romney still would not have conceded two days after the election. After all, there’s still a few million votes left to be counted and the numbers are still relatively close. Obama’s clear victory in the Electoral College put an end to that possibility. Romney’s gracious concession speech at least provided some reminder of the importance of unity — something that would have been buried under days of partisan wrangling as we continue to wait for the popular vote numbers to be finalized.

Thanks for your comment!

Comment by Joseph Phelan at Nov 08 2012 11:10 pm

Perhaps we should keep the electoral college, but provide electors based on the % of the state vote each candidate receives. That way, the vote of the huge number of voters in all states who are currently dis-enfranchised by the winner take all rule would have some meaning, and would reduce the focus on just the swing states, 
Individual state tallies could still be done, to reduce the impact of vote discrepancies, re-counts etc. and long delays in single states unless the vote was very close. The argument that we can’t wait a few extra days, seems weak, given that the campaigning is spread out over two years, and the voting over 4 or 5 weeks.

Comment by JAY at Jul 12 2013 09:03 am

why when we help other countries to democracy do we not set them up with an electorial college, is it because with today’s democracies it is not needed and antiquated? 
if our president is supposed to represent the people then he should be elected by the people. What should we have next, professional juror’s?

Comment by Becca at Feb 20 2015 04:05 pm

to be honest i am a senior in high school and i do NOT understand all of this stuff about the Electoral College