It’s Time to Abolish the Electoral College. Here’s Why.
The Electoral College is undemocratic. But so are a lot of other things in the American constitutional system. Given the fact that Hillary Clinton won more votes than anyone else in American history except for Barack Obama but will lose in the Electoral College, it’s fair to ask whether we get anything of value in return for using the undemocratic Electoral College process to elect a president.
The Electoral College exists because the Framers couldn’t settle on any better way of selecting the president. While some of the Framers wanted the president to be selected by popular vote, most weren’t particularly thrilled with the prospect of letting the great unwashed play a dominant role in the president’s election.
But, because they also didn’t want Congress to select the president — that would make the president subservient to Congress and would, therefore interfere with the separation of powers inherent in the Constitution’s design — the Framers tossed the problem to the states by creating the Electoral College. It was their hope that the states would select electors who would make a judicious evaluation of available candidates and select people with the gravitas, restraint, and wisdom necessary to serve as the country’s chief executive.
In short, they hoped the electors would select people of George Washington’s caliber every time.
What they came up with didn’t quite work. In the election of 1796, John Adams, a Federalist, received the greatest number of electoral votes and became President. His bitter rival, Thomas Jefferson, came in second and became the Vice President. Neither Adams nor Jefferson was pleased.
Four years later, Jefferson ran for president on a ticket that included Aaron Burr as Vice President. Jefferson and Burr won the election, but Burr received the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson. Burr wasn’t particularly loyal to Jefferson and wouldn’t cooperate in breaking the deadlock. The election provoked a constitutional crisis and had to be decided by the House of Representatives. It took seven days full of intrigue and political maneuvering to resolve it.
We adopted the 12th Amendment in 1804 to address these problems created by the Electoral College system. The 12th Amendment required state electors to specify their choices for president and vice president separately. But it kept the basic system in place. It did not mandate the selection of electors by popular vote and it did not require the states to award their electors by the winner-take-all system currently used by every state except for Nebraska and Maine. Under the 12th Amendment, a state can still allocate its electors however it wants to. It can even ignore the results of the popular election in the state and give the governor and/or the state legislature the power to select electors.
For most of our history, the winner of the popular vote has also been the winner of the Electoral College vote. But there have been five presidents who won the Electoral College vote despite losing the popular vote. Two of those popular vote losers — George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump — won their offices in the last 16 years.
Without focusing on the quality of the people elected, what do we get in return for using this undemocratic system? Proponents claim three major advantages:
Candidates will pay greater attention to smaller states — The argument is that were we instead to use the popular vote to select the president, candidates would spend all of their time in the ten states — California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina — where a majority of the U.S. population resides, leaving the other 40 states on the sidelines.
The basic flaw in this argument is that it assumes that a candidate will be able to carry 100% of the votes in each state.
These are all highly diverse states that have never in recent history elected a statewide officer by acclamation, and it’s completely unlikely that a candidate could engineer a complete shutout of the other candidate in even one state, let alone all 10. What is more likely is that the candidates would split the votes in these states, requiring them to aim for votes elsewhere.
In the last campaign, the presidential candidates focused over 2/3 of their campaign visits on just six states — Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan — home to less than 23% of the U.S. population. 25 states didn’t merit a single visit from either presidential candidate.
That means that candidates fought harder for votes in Ohio than they did for votes in California. Eliminating the Electoral College would put every voter on equal footing. Candidates would fight everywhere for each vote, making it more rational for voters in non-battleground states to vote. Every vote would matter. It’s not surprising that voter turnout rates are higher in the battleground states where voters expect the contest to be close and want their votes to matter.
The Electoral College forces candidates to pay attention to groups that have small national populations but are nevertheless pivotal in key states — Here, Electoral College apologists point to groups like blacks, Jews, and Latinos and argue that their voices would be drowned out as politicians seek to gain favor with white Christians, who still constitute the dominant share of the U.S. population.
In the first place, there isn’t a reason that blacks, Jews, Latinos, or anybody else ought to have a disproportionate influence over presidential elections. If democracy means anything, it means that everyone gets an equal vote. The right way for small groups to try to influence national policy is by using their influence within states to elect Senators and Members of Congress to represent them.
But, second, if politicians must compete for every vote, it’s not clear that smaller groups wouldn’t gain the attention of competing presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton made a concerted effort, in the last election to win the votes of minority groups, and on the national level, she won 89% of the black vote, 66% of the Latino vote, 65% of the Asian vote, 71% of the Jewish vote, and 67% of atheist vote, and that’s not all because she wanted to win Ohio or Florida. With numbers like those, it’s hard to imagine that the voices of these smaller groups weren’t heard. Indeed, it’s the Electoral College system that’s about to drown them out.
Without the Electoral College, there would be a free-for-all in which the presence of a large number of candidates would result in the election of a president who received only a plurality of the vote.
It’s not unusual in the U.S. for presidents to be elected by pluralities. In addition to the men who became president despite losing the popular vote, Presidents Clinton, Nixon, Kennedy, Truman, Wilson and Lincoln were all elected by pluralities.
But, if Electoral College apologists are really worried about it, there is a ready solution: Instant Runoff Voting. In Instant Runoff Voting, every voter submits a ballot in which his or her preferences are rank ordered. In the last election, for example, a voter might have ranked Libertarian Gary Johnson first, Jill Stein second, Hillary Clinton third and Donald Trump fourth. When the votes are counted, all votes are allocated to the candidate who is each voter’s first choice. If no candidate has a majority, the candidate who received the fewest votes is eliminated, and his or her votes are reallocated to the candidates who are the voters’ second choice. The process continues until one of the candidates has a majority.
In this case, suppose Gary Johnson received the fewest votes. Johnson would be eliminated, and our voter’s vote would then go to Jill Stein. Assuming that no candidate has a majority after the reallocation of Johnson’s votes, were Stein to have the next fewest votes after reallocating Johnson’s votes, Stein would be eliminated and our voter’s vote would then go to Clinton. Sincere there would then be only 2 candidates remaining, one of them would necessarily have a majority after Stein’s elimination and the reallocation of her votes.
Democracy is lacking in this country and frankly, I have my doubts that as presently configured, we can prevent our society from collapsing into tyranny. Getting rid of the Electoral College would be a big first step in assuring voters that their votes matter and that their voices will be heard.