The Electoral College Needs to Go (But it’s not Going Anywhere)

This map showing the proportion of the vote that the candidates received in each state was created by Wikipedia user Ali Zifan. Results are for the 2016 presidential election.

This map showing the proportion of the vote that the candidates received in each state was created by Wikipedia user Ali Zifan. Results are for the 2016 presidential election.

The Electoral College needs to go. That I feel very strongly and have for some time.

You may find it interesting that I am posting this article now, after we have just had Donald Trump elected to the presidency not with a majority of the votes nationwide, but according to this somewhat antiquated system that is nonetheless enshrined in our Constitution. You may be thinking that my complaint is due to my personal dislike for Trump rather than any deep seated principle. Well, it’s true that I am not a Trump fan, but I have held this opinion for some time – basically since I found out what the Electoral College was. Here are the reasons why.

  • The Electoral College allows a person with less votes to win. This is the simplest and most important argument against its continued existence. In 2016, it is currently estimated that almost three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump. The last time a winning candidate lost the popular vote was in 2000, and the margin was far smaller. This kind of a margin really gives the lie to it being a truly democratic system. Now, some will argue that we aren’t a pure democracy, and I agree to the extent that there has never been a totally pure democracy in the history of planet earth, nor would it be workable. But when it comes to voting for the highest office in the land, democratic principles seem pretty important, even if we don’t all gather together to cast votes for every single budget item. A simple tallying of the total votes is the fairest way to determine a winner. If you’re thinking, “Then Hillary would have won,” you are correct, but consider that the next time around, it may be your favored candidate who loses out as a result of this arcane rule.
  • The Electoral College does not give equal weight to all votes. I consider this the second most important argument. The vast majority of states have a “winner take all” system of choosing electors, meaning that if a presidential candidate hypothetically got one more vote than their opponent, they would still receive 100% of that state’s electoral votes. (Nebraska and Maine do assign electors proportionately.) The result is that most states are not even in play, and the candidates focus on “swing states”. During the last two election cycles, I have been either lucky or unlucky to live in a major swing state: Virginia in 2012 and Ohio in 2016. Because the race in those states was fairly close, it was conceivable that my vote would make much more of a difference than the vote of someone in, say, Connecticut. But beyond this simple fact is the less perceptible influence that swing states have on national policy. Over time, politicians will favor policies that benefit swing states and pander to get those votes more than others – that’s just human nature. Thus, swing states have an advantage in more ways than one. The common retort is that if we get rid of the Electoral College, candidates will just travel to the big cities, but that is no less unfair. In fact, they spend much of their time in big cities now, and candidates abandon the suburban and rural vote at their peril.
  • The winner of the Electoral College is not guaranteed to win. It must be stated that no candidate who has won a majority of electors has ever lost the Electoral College vote, so this may seem like less of an issue, but in actuality it would be quite possible for the electors to ignore the will of the people. You see, the Electoral College system is not a direct election at all but a choosing of representatives (electors) who will vote on behalf of little old you and me. It was designed by people who doubted the intelligence of the common man – and it was indeed the common man, for women were not allowed to vote. Most people still doubt the intelligence of those who disagree with them, but consider the fact that yesterday we had eleven electors attempt to vote for a candidate other than the one they were assigned. This is called being a “faithless elector”, and states have different rules about whether or not a person can actually do that. Some were replaced when they cast a faithless vote, while those in the state of Washington will each be fined $1,000. Normally, we don’t think about the possibility of faithless electors throwing an election because historical margins of victory have often been fairly comfortable and the electors were assumed to be party loyalists who wouldn’t dare renege on their promise. As we saw yesterday, that assumption is not necessarily correct. George W. Bush won by just five electoral votes in 2000. Had the same number of people switched sides then, Al Gore might have become president. If politics in this country is indeed getting crazier, we may not have seen the craziest thing yet: we may live to see the day when faithless electors throw an election.

There are other arguments made against the Electoral College: that it is an essentially outdated concept, that it favors Republicans and/or rural areas, etc. Those are more debatable, but I think the three arguments I have put forward are quite strong. Now, that is why the system needs to go, but here is why it never will, at least not any time in the near future.

First words of the United States Constitution

First words of the United States Constitution

The Electoral College is enshrined in the United States Constitution. I pull from Wikipedia the explanation of how a new amendment could be added that would overrule that principle.

An amendment may be proposed and sent to the states for ratification by either:

  • The United States Congress, whenever a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives deem it necessary;

OR

  • A national convention, called by Congress for this purpose, on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds (currently 34) of the states.

To become part of the Constitution, an amendment must be ratified by either (as determined by Congress):

  • The legislatures of three-fourths (currently 38) of the states, within the stipulated time period—if any;

OR

  • State ratifying conventions in three-fourths (currently 38) of the states, within the stipulated time period—if any.

Upon being properly ratified, an amendment becomes an operative addition to the Constitution[1]

You may be thinking, if the arguments against the Electoral College are so strong, and so many people dislike it, then why would ¾ of the states not vote to get rid of it? Here are a few reasons why.

  • Change is scary. As American history has worn on, amendments to the Constitution have become few and far between. Part of this is the simple fear of change and difficulty of mobilizing opinion, but there is also a reverence for the ideals of the Founding Fathers and a belief in their near infallibility. I would submit that the Founders themselves did not believe in their own infallibility, or they would not have set up a mechanism for changing the Constitution. If you have done much reading about the disagreements they had, you will realize that even the Constitution is not a sacred cow: after all, it also enshrined slavery! However, a large group of lawmakers would rather not touch it in general.
  • Swing states have everything to lose. I mentioned that the Electoral College gives unequal power and influence to states that are tightly contested. Why would they want to give up their privileged place? This is the same principle by which Iowa and New Hampshire of all places get to start the presidential nominating process. There are simply too many entrenched interests who have too much to gain from the status quo to care about a little matter of principle. We saw that 38 out of 50 states would need to support a new constitutional amendment. At least twelve are either currently swing states or dream of being one someday. The vote is lost already.
  • Republicans think they have everything to lose. This one may or may not be true in reality, but if you look at the two elections in my lifetime where a candidate won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote, it was a Republican both times (if you consider Trump a true Republican). That alone could convince many Republicans that they are better off with the Electoral College, but they also know that a lot of groups that traditionally lean Democratic, such as ethnic minorities and those on the East and West Coasts, are most present in states that are never tightly contested. Therefore, those Democratic votes do not get weighed equally. The Republicans know they are losing the long-term demographic battle in this country, and they know that removing the Electoral College would make it that much more difficult for them to win the presidency. Add to this the fact that it is state legislatures that usually vote on proposed constitutional amendments, and the additional fact that Republicans control an overwhelming majority of state legislatures in this country, and I think it’s clear that the Electoral College isn’t going anywhere.

Thus, we are stuck with this flawed system until politicians decide to actually do the right thing (most unlikely) or there is a political sea change in this country that either a) puts Democrats in charge of a majority of state legislatures, or b) convinces Republicans that they have more to gain from ditching the Electoral College.

[1] “List of amendments to the United States Constitution”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_amendments_to_the_United_States_Constitution, accessed 20 December 2016