On November 6, 2012, just after President Barack Obama won reelection, President-elect Donald J. Trump tweeted “The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.” Then last month, a week after he won the presidency himself, Trump took to Twitter again to announce that he now favored the over 200 year-old system that made him president, writing: “The Electoral College is actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play. Campaigning is much different!” With these two tweets, President-elect Trump outlined both sides of a controversy that has surged to the forefront of our national political discourse in recent weeks.
When Trump shocked the country and the world by defeating Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, many commentators and officials on both sides of the political spectrum were quick to hail a wave election that had thrown out the establishment and chosen an unconventional savior to lead the nation. But despite the clear electoral score of 306 to 232, Trump actually lost the popular vote. In fact, at least 2 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. But even though less than 47 percent of voters chose him, Trump will almost certainly be America’s next president. In a country that prides itself on the principles of democracy, why do we still have an electoral system that allows for minority rule, and is it time to abolish the Electoral College?
When the founding fathers created the Electoral College, their intention was to separate the election of the nation’s most powerful official from the volatile will of the public by giving the deciding votes to a group of educated and respected men. In Federalist Paper 68, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the electoral college would ensure that the president was chosen “by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation.”
Though the founders may have had good intentions, today the Electoral College has a negative effect on our country’s governance in a myriad of ways. For one, it decreases voter turnout by making Americans in reliable Republican or Democratic states less likely to vote because they know their votes will not have an effect on the election result. According to an article on National Public Radio’s website, “battleground states,” those that are often tightly contested and receive significant attention from the campaigns, see higher voter turnout than other states. When voter turnout suffers, local and state elections become unrepresentative of the actual preferences of the American people.
Advocates for the Electoral College argue that it protects the executive branch from the whims of the people, ensures that small states do not get ignored, and prevents one populous and politically coalesced region from dominating the rest of the country. These arguments have major holes. First, if a majority of Americans vote for one presidential candidate, that candidate should be elected, no matter where that coalition lives. Regardless, the presidential primaries already require that each candidate is popular in many areas of the country, else they would find it difficult to receive the party’s nomination. Additionally, the Electoral College no longer functions as a barrier between the people and the election of the president, since only a handful of electors have ever voted against the choice of their state’s voters.
On Twitter, President-elect Donald Trump wrote that the Electoral College “brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play.” According to national popular vote advocates, however, the major presidential campaigns held two thirds of all events during the general election in just six states, and 94% of all events in only 12 states. As Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said last year, “The nation as a whole is not going to elect the next president. Twelve states are.” If every vote mattered, politicians would be more attuned to the opinions of the majority of Americans, not the majority of Floridians or Nevadans.
The abolition of the Electoral College should be a bipartisan issue. According to Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight website, the party that the Electoral College helps “can bounce back and forth based on relatively subtle changes in the electorate.” While the Electoral College is most famous for its role in the 2000 and 2016 elections, in 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry came within 120,000 votes in Ohio from winning the presidential election despite losing the popular vote by around 3 million.
Despite the many reasons for abolishing the Electoral College, it is not going away anytime soon. One reason for this is that the party with power in the government usually has the Electoral College advantage, so that party will see no reason to get rid of it. Additionally, abolishing the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment, which is exceedingly difficult to achieve.
However, a coalition of 11 states with 165 electoral votes have passed laws that would require their electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote, no matter whom the state’s voters choose. The pact will not go into effect until states totaling 270 votes sign on, but there still is a chance that our democracy can move away from this outdated system.