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With several Democratic candidates calling to end the Electoral College, it is important to remember why it exists. Despite its shortcomings, it helps strengthen the voice of smaller states.
The basic premise of the great American experiment of self-government is equality. For a democracy to survive, there must be an unquestionable understanding that no man is better than another. This idea is essential to self-government and, by extension, voting rights. In America, every vote is equal to another. At least, it is for the popular vote.
The Electoral College is a necessary evil. It fulfills an important duty: protecting the rights of smaller states. Without the Electoral College, the overall decision of Rhode Island would not stand up to the decision of California.
How does the Electoral College Work?
The United States has an Electoral College for a similar reason why there is a Senate and a House of Representatives. More people live on the coasts than in the Midwest. California and New York would have more power in a direct presidential election than Wyoming and Idaho. The Electoral College helps balance the power between interior and coastal states. But how does it work?
Every state has at least three electoral votes because every state has two senators and at least one representative. California gets 55 votes, the most of any state, while North Dakota gets three.
On Election Day, candidates need 270 out of 538 electoral votes to win. This is when the popular vote is important. In every state except Nebraska and Maine, the candidate who wins the popular votes gets all the electoral votes. In the two other states, the votes are awarded based on the winner in each individual congressional district.
The winner of the popular vote is almost always the winner of the Electoral College. Each individual vote is equal in determining the winner of the Electoral College. Sometimes, however, the majority decision is not the outcome.
There have been five elections where the winner lost the popular vote. Three were in the 1800’s. The other two were the 2000 and 2016 elections.
The 2000 election showed flaws within the system. However, George W. Bush’s win ultimately came down to a flawed ballot system in Florida. The 2016 election is what gave the anti-Electoral College movement the push it needed.
Since Donald Trump became president only through the existence of the Electoral College, people have been calling for its removal. In a Vanity Fair opinion piece, the author argues that the Supreme Court ended recounts for presidential elections in 2000. Although that is not necessarily true, it does show the distrust in the Electoral College started with George W. Bush’s controversial first win and exploded with Trump’s win.
The path to the presidency through the Electoral College is often viewed as anti-democratic. Individual votes are no longer equal. The votes of three million people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 did not matter.
Except they did. While they appear to not count when looking at the final tally, those three million votes helped determine which states Clinton won, giving her crucial electoral votes.
It is impossible to know every single citizen’s decision. Some people are traveling on Election Day, others cannot get to the polls. Some do not see voting as important and, in some states, going to prison takes away a citizen’s right to vote. While equal, the popular vote is never a true reflection of every American’s opinion.
Anti-Electoral College Movement
The movement towards abolishing the Electoral College has gained enough traction that it is now a significant policy question in the upcoming election. Democratic candidates like Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) want to get rid of the process. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has said, “we need to reexamine the concept of the Electoral College.”
Not all Democrats want to get rid of the system. Lesser known candidates like John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, have said that the process, while frustrating, is not likely to go away any time soon.
It is easy to see why the Democratic Party supports the end of the Electoral College. Without it, Hillary Clinton would be in the White House. Al Gore, who would have needed a Florida recount regardless, may have been president. The last two times the Electoral College picked the “wrong” winner, the Republicans benefitted.
In April, several senators introduced an amendment to abolish the Electoral College. A similar bill was proposed in the House earlier this year. While these bills will most likely fail, they provide the growing movement with a legislative history. There is now action behind all the talk.
A poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 65 percent of Americans support direct election of the president. The Electoral College does give unbalanced importance to several states that are seen as “battleground” regions. In 2016, data from a non-profit showed that 94 percent of political or campaign events took place in just 12 states.
However, these states are not only “battleground” states because of their electoral votes. They are either early primary states, such as Iowa, or states that are not firmly blue or red, like Florida. The Electoral College is more the scapegoat than the root of the problem.
The system, while flawed, is necessary to ensure the president is not only wanted by a majority of the people, but also by a majority of the regions. The candidate who wins the Electoral College is usually the candidate who wins the popular vote. Although the Electoral College is necessary, that does not mean it has to stay exactly the same.
The best solution could be to change state rules to reflect Maine and Nebraska. Electoral votes should be given based on who wins in each congressional district, with the added two votes going to the winner of the popular vote. This would better reflect the want of the majority while also providing proper support to less-populated states.