Outgrowing the Electoral College

61% of Americans are in favor of abolishing the Electoral College. 2020’s tension-filled election cycle may demonstrate why.

“The Electoral College creates distortions in political campaigns and voting outcomes most people would find objectionable,” says Dr. James McCann, political science professor at Purdue.

“Smaller states are overrepresented, and states that aren’t “swing states” (like Indiana) get little to no attention from presidential and vice-presidential candidates during campaigns.”

The disproportionate influence of swing states (and the resulting attention given to those states) is one of the main criticisms of the winner-take-all system. For example, 94% of 2016 campaign events occurred in just 12 states, while two-thirds of the events took place in just six states.

“Furthermore, the fact that a candidate who leads in the popular vote would not become the next president seems illegitimate on the face of it,” says Dr. McCann.

He pointed to cases like George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016, both of whom lost the popular vote but still won the Electoral College. A total of five US Presidents have now come into office despite losing the popular vote.

Dr. Rosalee Clawson, professor of political science at Purdue, agrees the current system is deeply flawed.

“The Electoral College is a relic and is no longer functional in our modern democracy,” says Dr. Clawson. “That said, we need to think carefully about what might replace it. Every system has consequences, intended and unintended.”

The Electoral College was established by Article II of the Constitution. Electors were intended to have some level of discretion, giving states more control over electoral results. The number of electoral votes is equal to that state’s number of US representatives and senators in Congress. Candidates compete for a 270-vote majority out of 538 total votes.

The Electoral Count Act of 1887 was meant to offer guidelines for contested elections. However, the wording is vague. The gist: electors’ choices should reflect the will of the people. Thirty-three states legally prevent “faithless electors,” or electors who don’t vote for the state’s chosen candidate. In some states, faithless electors are removed, while others are fined.

And yet, electors are frequently lobbied to change their votes, with many considering the idea despite how many popular votes that candidate received. In the most recent example, in 2016 seven electors cast faithless votes for someone other than Trump or Clinton. And only 14 states have laws able to cancel rouge votes.

Concerning current Electoral College activity, Dr. McCann said, “State lawmakers in Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania are not now rushing to reverse the Electoral College vote in spite of significant pressures from the White House. Even though the Electoral College has some inherently “anti-democratic” tendencies, it is at least reassuring that the tradition of assigning electoral votes based on voter preferences within the state is being upheld.”

The only time the Electoral College was legally threatened was in 1969, when the House voted for an amendment to dismantle it. However, a group of Southern lawmakers in the Senate filibustered the bill to prevent the loss of their electoral power.

While amending the Constitution would be the most straightforward approach to changing the Electoral College, it’s also the most difficult. However, as the Constitution allows states exclusive control over awarding electoral votes, there is another option: The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The aim of the National Popular Vote is to ensure the popular vote dictates the Electoral College results, making “every vote in every state” count.

Fifteen states and DC have already enacted it into law, for a total of 196 electoral votes. That means the bill needs 74 votes to reach a 270 majority, putting it into effect across the country.

But not everyone is convinced.

“The National Popular Vote has been under consideration for quite some time,” says Dr. McCann. “In principle, this would be an effective way to undo the Electoral College system without a constitutional amendment. But it doesn’t appear to be a feasible reform proposal, at least for now. Many more states would still have to sign on, which doesn’t look likely.

If the National Popular Vote bill is passed, it will have a ripple effect in America’s politics. Dr. Clawson explains that, as the system stands now, presidential campaigns focus solely on winning the Electoral College.

“If the system were changed to a National Popular Vote, campaigns would shift their mobilization strategies accordingly,” says Dr. Clawson.

One potential upside is increased voter turnout as more citizens believe their votes matter.

On the other hand, both the Democrat and Republican parties will be affected.

“There will be implication for vote shares for the two major parties,” says Dr. Clawson. “It’s an open question whether Democrats would continue to dominate the popular vote under a National Popular Vote system. But given the Electoral College clearly disadvantages them, many Democrats are willing to take that gamble.”    

However, the National Popular Vote isn’t the only alternative to the Electoral College. Dr. McCann and Dr. Clawson weigh the pros and cons of other options.

“There’s nothing to stop a state from awarding electoral votes at the level of congressional districts, as Maine and Nebraska do,” says Dr. McCann. “If all the states did this, the distortions in the Electoral College system would be partly smoothed out.”

But district-based voting has its own potential issues.

“Allocating electoral votes by congressional district has the unintended consequence of making state legislatures even more motivated to gerrymander their districts,” says Dr. Clawson.

Gerrymandering is when states change the boundaries of a district to favor one political party. Because of this, district-based voting might perpetuate existing instances of unfair representation.

Awarding electoral votes based on proportional representation is another option.

“For example,” says Dr. McCann, “if one candidate received 30% of the vote in a state with ten electoral votes, she would get three electoral votes from that state.”

Unfortunately, this approach isn’t perfect either. For example, rapidly growing states would be at a disadvantage because electoral votes are only redistributed every ten years after the federal census. Furthermore, the proportional system doesn’t necessarily remove the winner-take-all problem, as candidates would often be fighting over one or two electoral votes, once again focusing on swing states. 

However, the US could choose to adopt one of the systems used in other countries.

“Most democracies where a president is elected hold nationwide votes in stages,” says Dr. McCann. “In the first round, if no candidate gets a majority, then several weeks later a runoff election between the two top finishers is held. That would be a sensible model for the US to adopt if we were to drop the Electoral College.”

Compared to the rest of the world, the US voting system is unique. In addition to the US, there are 40 democracies around the world that have a presidential role with real and symbolic power. In 33 of those countries, voters directly elect their president. Twenty-two require a popular vote majority. Of the world’s 125 electoral democracies, the US is the only one in which voters choose electors who then choose the president.

Removing the Electoral College might level the political playing field, but what would replace it is up for debate.

District-based voting and proportional representation both have their problems, and the National Popular Vote still needs 74 electoral votes to be implemented nationwide. Besides DC and the 15 states that have enacted it, the bill has passed at least one chamber in nine additional states. That represents 88 electoral votes, making it at least possible the bill could go into effect in the coming years.

Regardless of which system is chosen, the Electoral College appears to have reached the end of its usefulness. Coupled with gerrymandering, it hinders democracy instead of supporting it.

Of course, the Electoral College isn’t the only example where America’s distribution of political power is skewed. Consider the Senate, where Wyoming’s 600,000 residents have the same representative power as California’s 39.5 million. More than the Electoral College may have to change to ensure equal representation across the country.

Moving forward, more and more US citizens are demanding the same thing: let the majority rule, or, in other words, make every vote in every state count.

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