Updated: Nov 18, 2020
On June 21, 1788, the U.S. Constitution was ratified and adopted by the United States of America. Along with outlining the responsibilities of each government branch, the Constitution also details the procedure for electing the president through the Electoral College. As outlined in the Constitution, electors are selected to vote for the office of president. This election process utilizes the popular vote as a reference and the electors vote for a new Commander in Chief with the people in mind. The Electoral College was created as a compromise between a popular vote and congressional selection of the president.
Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution states that each state will be granted a number of electors equal to their representation in Congress. In 1961, the ratification of the 23rd Amendment provided the District of Columbia with three votes, creating a total of 538 electors. The electors are to list each candidate who has a vote and the number of votes they’ve received. That list is sealed and sent directly to the president of the Senate, who then reads and counts the votes. The individual with the greatest number of votes wins the presidency, followed by the second most electoral votes for the vice president. This process was modified in 1804 when the 12th Amendment was ratified, creating separate ballots for presidential and vice presidential candidates. Of the 50 states, 48 of them use an “all or nothing” system that gives all of the state’s electoral votes to the individual who won that state’s popular vote by any margin, called the plurality of the state. The remaining states, Maine and Nebraska, employ a district system in which 2 electors cast a vote for the plurality of the state and the remaining electors each cast a vote for the plurality of each district. 26 states and the District of Columbia bind their electors to vote for the state’s plurality; however, “faithless electors” have been known to vote for a different candidate than the popular vote.
Supporters of the Electoral College claim that it is fundamental to American federalism and increases the amount of representation for smaller states because each state is granted a minimum of three electors regardless of size or population. It’s argued that the college forces candidates to rally support outside of major cities and guarantees every citizen is represented in elections. The process of voting through the Electoral College also provides a decisive winner, rather than waiting on challenges or state recounts.
The growing population of individuals who wish to abolish the Electoral College argues that faithless electors open the process up to manipulation and misrepresentation. Since most electors are not bound to vote alongside the plurality, the popular vote for the state may be completely ignored, thus invalidating the people’s decision. They also claim that it inherently isn’t democratic and eliminates the possibility of “one person, one vote.” This elimination has led to five instances of a candidate winning the election but not the popular vote. The elections of John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), George W. Bush (2000) and Donald Trump (2016) are all examples of the winner of the popular vote still losing the election. Many find an issue with this in a democratic country where the people elect individuals to office. The presidential election is additionally the only election that doesn’t use the popular vote.
Opponents of the Electoral College have provided alternatives they say are more democratic and more fairly represent the U.S. population. The first idea maintains the benefits of the Electoral College that supporters claim are important to the election. This reform would keep the current system and create restrictions to prevent faithless electors. The reform would also adopt the district representation shown by Maine and Nebraska and force each state to vote the way its people did while also maintaining the minimum of three electoral votes for a state. The second and most popular idea is to abolish the system altogether and simply use the popular vote, just as in any other election. They wish to eliminate the middle-man and prevent the popular vote from being ignored.
The Constitution was written to be a living, breathing document that changed with the people’s needs and desires. What worked 200 years ago isn’t necessarily what we need now. The debate surrounding the Electoral College has gone on for years, and every election year becomes increasingly more divided. This discussion needs to be taken to the federal government and be debated in a national forum. With the 2020 presidential election only 41 days away, the importance of a fair electoral system is a major topic of conversation. Discuss with your friends, email your representatives and form your own educated opinions. The time for change is now.
By Rae Hargis, Contributing Writer