Here’s one that’s been on my mind for some time….
First, I’ve always liked the electoral college for one reason: tradition. It’s how the Founding Fathers put things together and there you have it. But I realized that my interpretation of as well as my reasoning for liking the electoral college wasn’t really based on understanding. I decided to learn something.
What is it?
The US uses a system of indirect voting for the President. Basically, when you vote for President, you don’t actually vote for the person. Instead, you vote for the members of the electoral college, which are people who have pledged to vote for a particular person for president. Simple, right? Wrong.
So you might ask why we use an electoral college instead of a direct, popular vote for president. The answer, while complex, can be simplified by saying State Rights. Remember that the original 13 Colonies were far less nation-oriented in nature and much more state-oriented. There was a genuine fear among the smaller southern states that the northern states could use their overwhelming population size to dominate any election using a popular vote, a legitimate concern. Additionally, individual states wanted to ensure that the power to elect the presidency was a state issue, not federal. Much more to it than that of course (MUCH MORE), but that’s a nutshell that’d get you through most junior high history courses.
The solution to maintaining state rights and also the balance of power without catering to the higher population of the north was to grant an electoral vote to each state based on (1) the number of senators in the state and (2) the number of congressman. Because each state has two senators and at least one congressman, each state was guaranteed at least three votes. On the inverse, because more populous states have multiple congressmen, they had more votes. It was an imperfect win-win that worked well.
Today, the electoral college is often seen as archaic and past its usefulness. In particular, many are frustrated that past elections have occurred where a candidate won the electoral college but not the popular vote. The most recent example was when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore despite losing the popular vote in 2000.
This and other things have driven the issue forward and brought up again a call to amend the constitution to replace the electoral college with a direct, popular vote.
And all this leads to my list of pros and cons.
Pros for the Electoral College
- Helps keep smaller states relevant. Wyoming, although it only has some 500,000 residents still gets three votes. The state will likely never swing an election, but at least it is relevant.
- Because of the mostly ubiquitous winner-take-all system of awarding votes* on the state level, the electoral college strongly minimizes the possibility of a third-party system, which some claim leads to greater political instability.
- Similar to the first point, the electoral college helps rural states maintain a measure of importance, which broadens the base that a candidate needs to relate with.
- The electoral college also helps cater to minority groups. Because of the winner-take-all approach of awarding electoral votes, a candidate would likely pay attention to the needs and wishes of local minority groups in the hopes that building a coalition of support would capture the vote of a state.
In short, some argue in favor of the electoral college because, like originally wanted, it helps smaller populations and groups maintain a voice in the government. There are of course, many other reasons.
Now the cons:
Cons of the Electoral College
- The big one is, of course, that it could go against the will of the majority of the people.
- The electoral college pushes third-party candidates out. Because of the winner-take-all approach, a third-party would have to win the entire state to get even a single electoral vote. That generally doesn’t happen. A popular vote would at least legitimize third-parties.
- The college also encourages candidates to focus heavily on the higher population states anyway simply because the winner-take-all approach for those states means you could capture the White House winning only a small number of mega-population states, such as California, Texas, New York, Florida, and so on.
- Similar to the previous, the winner-take-all approach generally means that candidates can only focus on a handful of swing states such as Pennsylvania and Florida. Let’s be honest, California is voting Democrat. Texas is voting Republican. Why spend time or money there?
- On the same note, if you are in a state that is staunchly for one party or another and you are not for the same party, your vote is pretty much not counted because the electoral votes are winner-take-all. With a popular vote, your vote would at least count.
- The electoral college unfairly supports small states. Going back to Wyoming, each electoral vote in Wyoming represents roughly 167,000 people. In California, it’s closer to 500,000 people.
Hopefully by now you’re seeing a very common trend here in my thoughts… Winner-take-all.
When it comes down to it, I don’t necessarily dislike the Electoral College. I’m not really in favor of it either. I do like the positives that it brings while simultaneously disliking the negatives. I also do not think that a direct, popular vote is a great answer for the simple reason that it will disenfranchise the smaller state, and I am a believer that the states make the nation, not the nation the states.
So what is the answer? Remove the winner-take-all requirement. Maine and Nebraska award their electoral votes based on the winner of the popular vote within each congressional district. So, for example, if CD1 voted for candidate A, that’s one electoral vote. If CD2 then voted for candidate B, that’d be one for candidate B. And so on.
This approximates more closely the popular vote without disenfranchising the smaller states. It also makes it more likely that third-parties would have some relevance, albeit smaller than a true direct, popular vote.
Finally, this would force candidates to respond directly to regional needs and issues. In this system, California would still be the grand prize, but instead of being a grand prize of 58 votes, it’d be 58 smaller grand prizes of a single vote each. Utah, with six votes, would have as much relevance per district as California would.
This system would also minimize the effect of a strong state-wide party. In Utah, there are four CDs, one led by a Democrat. Instead of all six votes going Republican each year, there is certainly a chance that the electoral votes could go 5-1 or even 4-2.
And that’s a good thing.
The big negatives I see are that going to this system would extend the breadth of the presidential campaign to huge proportions. It also could create a dramatic case where someone could legitimately win the 270 smallest CDs in the country, which would mean they’d take the election while being literally millions behind in the popular vote. I doubt that’d ever happen, but it could.
The final one is that it would only increase gerrymandering because of the all-important boundaries and makeup of congressional districts.
In the end, it is still an imperfect solution, but I believe it to be a better solution than a direct, popular vote.
*Nebraska and Maine do NOT award votes using the winner-take-all method. They award based on the popular vote within the congressional district.