Electoral College: Yea or Nay?

United States electoral map, 2020

Some Americans think it is time for our democratic republic to “graduate” from the Electoral College: they consider it outdated and unfair. Others point out that it may helping to keep the nation from coming apart at its urban/rural seams. A few things are certain: the Electoral College was indeed crafted many years ago; it is by design not direct democracy. Moreover, the U.S. Constitution contains an amendment process by which a change could be made if it were widely agreed that the Electoral College should go—but that is unlikely to happen. Why did the Framers create an indirect (even nondemocratic) system for electing the president and vice president?

How to elect the U.S. president was a lively topic at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Several options were considered. In the United States, powers are shared between the states and the national government, with the conducting of elections being a power reserved to the states. The Electoral College assigns states (and the District of Columbia) votes according to their relative size in terms of population. The number is based on the size of a state’s congressional delegation (the total of its representatives plus senators). A U.S. presidential election is essentially made up of 50 individual state elections, with all but two states choosing their electors in statewide, winner-take-all contests. To win the presidency, a candidate must gain a majority in the Electoral College, which encourages campaigns to assemble a coalition of states—whether in the Northeast, South, Midwest, or West. Presidential candidates must run more or less nationally. The winner of the electoral vote generally has broader nationwide support among more different kinds of Americans from different places. As a result, “swing states” (those that might go to either major-party candidate) are where the bulk of campaigning occurs. These states are also referred to as “battleground states.”

The Electoral College favors smaller (by population) states. For example, Delaware—population 967,171 in 2018—has 3 electoral votes, while Texas—with a 2018 population (28,701,845) about 30 times that of Delaware’s—has 38, less than 13 times more. At the level of the individual, a Wyomingite’s vote has more impact than a Californian’s. But if the president were elected by the national popular vote, campaigns would likely focus primarily on the major population centers. Opposition to the Electoral College, largely driven by dissatisfaction among Democrats, has led more than a dozen states to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPV). The NPV—an attempt to abolish the Electoral College by state legislation—would require a state’s electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote, rather than necessarily the winner of the state.

Image credit: from Presidential Election Process (2017). In USA.gov. Retrieved June 6, 2019, from https://www.usa.gov/election#item-36072

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