The Electoral College v. the Popular Vote
Updated: Mar 20
The Electoral College has been maligned in recent years, perhaps not unduly. Just five times in history has the Electoral College granted the presidency to the loser of the national popular vote. Through the first 220 years of the republic, this reality was realized just three times (1824, 1876, and 1888), rendering the defeats of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, just 16 years apart, all the more profound. Through political corruption (1824), partisan bias (1876), outright vote-rigging (1888), controversial curtailing of recounting (2000), and foreign meddling in key states (2016), the Electoral College has repeatedly been exploited to obscure the will of the people. Regardless of party affiliation, Americans have never been fully satisfied with the Electoral College, and the question persists: is the system imperfect, or irredeemable?
Power to the Small States – and the Constitution
A common refrain for supporters of the Electoral College revolves around equal consideration of all states. The worry is that, with a direct popular vote, those living in small states would be overshadowed by voters in more populous areas, leading to geographical imbalances in the agendas of candidates. Nebulous doomsday scenarios (for example, solidly blue California, population 39.6 million, treading over the voters of Republican-dominated Wyoming, population 577,737), are repeatedly cited by small-state advocates. As far as general elections are concerned, recent history does not support this conclusion.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, nearly 94% of all campaign events were held in just 12 states (National Popular Vote), and approximately 70% of events were held in six states. The point is furthered when considering the state of Florida, shown in the map below. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won nine of the 67 counties in the state. Six of these, Alachua, Leon, Orange, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade, contain major universities and urban centers, with two others, Broward and Osceola, neighboring these. These eight counties include the five most populated in Florida; the ninth, Gadsden, holds the distinction of the only majority African-American county in the state. Despite winning by substantial margins in many of the state’s population centers, Clinton lost the popular vote in Florida by more than 100,000 votes. Florida, a state split between vast rural regions and dense, ethnically diverse cities, is as compelling a case study as any. Its perpetual status as a toss-up, a swing state, is proof that the myth of city centers easily imposing their will on rural citizens is exactly that: a myth.
Florida: Islands of Blue Awash in a Sea of Red
The Electoral College system has, in fact, given a handful of states a grossly outsized influence upon national elections. Rather than lending an ear to all states, large and small, candidates are apt to ignore states which are either too polarized to be swayed or too lightly populated to decide the election. The popular vote, conversely, would give individual Americans, not states, the right to elect the President. Such a direct democratic process would inevitably force candidates to visit and speak to the likes of all Americans, not simply those who happen to live in purple states.
The Electoral College holds the distinct advantage of precedence. Like many modern issues, the use of the Electoral College is often justified by its origins. The framers of the U.S. Constitution are revered, almost to the point of infallibility, leading to the belief that constitutional changes are so controversial or difficult that it is inappropriate or foolish to pursue them. Supporters of the original system may preserve it out of respect for the founding fathers, while opponents rail against it for its lack of modern applicability. Ultimately, both sides recognize that, like any American tradition, it will not disappear without a fight.
Those yearning for elections by popular vote may find solace in the National Popular Vote interstate compact. The compact seeks an indirect path to a popular vote. Instead of abolishing the Electoral College, the measure would require states to grant all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. In this way, the goal of a popular vote is achieved by circumvention, rather than amendment, of a central tenet of the Constitution. As of this writing, 16 states, commanding 73% (196/270) of the electoral votes required to win the presidency, have joined the compact. In 2019, the bill has been passed in one legislative chamber in Nevada and Minnesota, representing 16 potential electoral votes. Click here for the current status of the compact in each state, as well as extensive information on the compact’s mission, rationale, and more.
Should the popular vote fail to become law, the shortcomings of the Electoral College could still potentially be reined in. The aforementioned cherry picking of campaign stops could be curtailed through the joint efforts of state governments and the media. All but two states, Nebraska and Maine, follow the winner-take-all system, ceding all of their Electoral votes to the candidate winning their state’s popular vote. This renders the actual margin of victory irrelevant within states, as a candidate losing a state by 20% will receive the same goose egg as a candidate losing the state by 20 votes. However, the United States Constitution grants states the right to decide how they apportion their Electoral College votes, so a winner-take-all system does not need to persist. Instead, states could make it known that they will take into account campaign stops when granting their Electoral votes. Though this may seem coercive, the framers of the Constitution did not explicitly prohibit such an act. Taking a firm stance against selective campaigning could give long-neglected states, and those who live within them, the voice they deserve on the national stage.
In the lead-up to primaries for major parties, it is not at all uncommon for news outlets to choose which party and which candidates will be allowed to debate and be interviewed on their network. For example, the first two Democratic debates of 2019 were limited by cable networks to the 20 highest polling candidates within the party. While the few candidates excluded from these debates were already longshots for the nomination, their odds grew even longer as they were denied a key national platform. Media networks could apply the same selectiveness to narrowly-focused candidates; networks could exclude from televised debates any candidates who do not make an effort to visit a majority of U.S. states. To reduce the appearance of subjectivity or bias, campaign event requirements could be laid out well in advance of debates. As an example, consider the mock schedule below (structured for simplicity around the 2019 Democratic Party debate schedule):
To be eligible for the televised debates on the dates below, candidates must visit a minimum of:
(15) states by June 26th, 2019
(26) states by July 30th, 2019
(35) states by September 12th, 2019
(42) states by October 5th, 2019
As it is, candidates are constantly working against the clock to drum up support in key areas, but this is the very reason why campaigning requirements could be valuable. In order to reach the visitation goal prior to the first primary debate, candidates would be forced to take their decision to enter the race more seriously and campaign more vigorously. Candidates would also be forced to speak directly to far more diverse groups of citizens, leading them to gain a much more comprehensive view of American issues and challenges. Hopefully, this would better prepare candidates for the debates and the office that loom ahead of them.
Whether you consider it an arbiter of states’ rights or a miscarriage of individual democratic rights, the Electoral College remains the standard for presidential election. After more than two centuries, its dominance and constitutional roots cannot be overcome without an exceptional, united effort. With a deeply unpopular President running for re-election in 2020, the potential remains for the Electoral College to once again carry the day. Such a repeat would be unprecedented, and the result would be anything but popular.