Photo credit: Associated Press/Charles Bennett

Public Attitudes

In the 1960s, Republicans were even more likely than Democrats to think the electoral college system of electing an American president should be replaced with a popular vote. Large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans continued to feel that way until the 2000 presidential election, when Democrat Al Gore won the national popular vote and Republican George W. Bush won the electoral college: suddenly Republicans thought the electoral college was worth keeping.

In the following fifteen years, most Republicans began to rejoin Democrats in wanting to get rid of the electoral college. Again, however, when the 2016 election caused Democrats to be even more overwhelmingly in favor of getting rid of the electoral college, Republicans became overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining the eighteenth-century method of choosing a president.

Even Donald Trump himself seems to have experienced a change of heart on the matter: in 2012 he tweeted that “the electoral college is a disaster for democracy,” but then decided after the November 2016 election that “the electoral college is actually genius.”

Creation and Evolution of the Electoral College

The electoral college was created as one of many makeshift compromises at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The delegates had spent a lot of time determining the composition of the two-chamber Congress and then had to turn to the selection of the president. As expressed frequently in the Federalist Papers, the convention delegates distrusted the “passions” of the people and particularly distrusted the ability of average voters to choose a president in a national election.

While the original intent was for presidential electors to use their independent judgments when voting for president, in modern times, voters vote for groups of electors pledged to specific presidential candidates in each state. Those pledged electors are chosen by state parties based on long-time party loyalty, with specific electors in all 50 states chosen by some combination of party leaders and party organizations. In most states, state party conventions choose pledged electors for their party’s presidential candidate.

Split Results

Because of the election results in 2000 and 2016, the electoral college system has turned into a partisan issue when it shouldn’t be. Four times in American history, the winner in the electoral college has differed from the candidate who finished first in national popular vote. However, Hillary Clinton’s lead in 2016—almost three million votes more than Trump nationwide—is far larger than the national vote margins in the three previous elections with split results.

The main reason for the split results in presidential elections is the winner-take-all system by which 48 states award their electoral votes. Each state gets a number of electoral votes exactly equal to the number of members of Congress that state has, with three more for Washington, D.C., due to the 23rd Amendment to the US Constitution. The Constitution specifies that each state is to determine how its presidential electors are chosen, and all states except Maine and Nebraska award all electors to whichever presidential candidate wins the most votes in the state.

In the 2016 presidential election, this winner-take-all system caused Trump to win the electoral votes of several key states by small margins, while Clinton won many other states by much larger margins:

Pennsylvania

Trump 2,970,733 votes, 48.6% of vote

Clinton 2,926, 441, 47.9% of vote

44,292 vote margin, Trump wins 20 electoral votes

Michigan

Trump 2,279,543 votes, 47.5% of vote

Clinton 2,268,839 votes, 47.3% of vote

10,704 vote margin, Trump wins 16 electoral votes

Wisconsin

Trump 1,405,284 votes, 47.2% of vote

Clinton 1,382,536, 46.5% of vote

22,748 vote margin, Trump wins 10 electoral votes

Combined winning margins in PA, MI, WI = 77,744 votes for 46 electoral votes

Without those three states, Trump would have lost in the electoral college.

Massachusetts

Clinton 1,995,196 votes, 60.0%

Trump 1,090,893 votes, 32.8%

904,303 vote margin, Clinton wins 11 electoral votes

Virginia

Clinton 1,981,473 votes, 49.8% of vote

Trump 1,769,443 votes 44.4% of vote

212,030 vote margin, Clinton wins 13 electoral votes

Colorado

Clinton 1,338,870 votes, 48.2% of vote

Trump 1,202,484 votes, 43.3% of vote

136,386 vote margin, Clinton wins 9 electoral votes

Oregon

Clinton 1,002,106 votes, 50.1% of vote

Trump 782,403 votes, 39.1% of vote

219,703 vote margin, Clinton wins 7 electoral votes

Hawaii

Clinton 266,891 votes, 61.0% of vote

Trump 128,847 votes, 29.4% of vote

138,044 vote margin, Clinton wins 4 electoral votes

Combined winning margins in MA, VA, CO, OR, HI = 1,610,466 votes for 44 electoral votes

Only Maine and Nebraska do not use a winner-take-all system to distribute electoral votes. In those two states, a presidential candidate wins one pledged elector from each U.S. House district he/she wins, and two pledged electors if that candidate finishes first statewide. So it’s possible for electoral votes to be split in those two states, though that has only happened twice—in Nebraska in 2008, and in Maine in 2016. In 2008, John McCain won four electoral votes and Barack Obama won one electoral vote in Nebraska. And in 2016, Clinton won three electoral votes in Maine, and Trump won one.

Inaccurate Claims

Because of the results in recent elections, some have made claims, usually partisan in nature, for the value of keeping the electoral college system. Yet on closer observation, most of those claims are based on false information or false assumptions.

Claim #1

The Framers didn’t trust popular opinion to choose the president, and the Framers of the Constitution were right.

Such a claim is sometimes made by university students first learning about the electoral college system. But the Framers of the Constitution originally intended for presidential electors to exercise independent judgment, and the electoral college has not worked this way since the 1820s. Electors in each state now just vote for the leading presidential candidate chosen by voters in each state. Occasionally, electors do not vote as pledged, but these faithless electors have never changed the outcome of a presidential election.

Even in 2016, when some of the Republican electors may not have been big supporters of Donald Trump’s candidacy and when there were widespread calls for electors to substitute their judgment for that of the voters, only seven electors successfully voted against the candidate to whom they were pledged. Three other electors attempted to cast votes for different candidates, but they were blocked by state laws requiring electors to vote as pledged.

Keeping the electoral college because the Framers of the Constitution were “right” does not work as an argument when the electoral college has not been working the way the Framers intended for the past two hundred years.

Claim #2

The electoral college forces presidential candidates to campaign in small states and rural areas and not just urban areas.

The main flaw of this argument is that it’s false, though President Trump and many others on social media have posted such an assertion.

In the two months before the November 2012 election, out of 253 campaign events at which Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Mitt Romney, or Paul Ryan appeared:

73 of the events were in Ohio, 40 events in Florida, and 36 events in Virginia – 59% of all campaign events.

27 campaign events were in Iowa and 23 events in Colorado—so 79% of all campaign events were in 5 states.

0 (none) campaign events for any of the four candidates took place in California, Texas, or New York.

0 campaign events for any of the four candidates were held in Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, West Virginia, Nebraska, or Kansas.

38 states got no campaign visits at all in those two months prior to the 2012 election.

Data from 2016 indicate that 53% of the campaign events for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Mike Pence, and Tim Kaine in the two months before the November election were held in just four states—Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Ohio. During that time, 87% of campaign visits by the four candidates were in twelve battleground states, and none of the four candidates ever set foot in 27 states, including almost all of the least populated states in America.

The electoral college system causes candidates to spend all their campaign time in cities in ten or twelve states rather than in thirty, forty, or all fifty states. Presidential candidates would not campaign in rural areas no matter what system was used, simply because there are not a lot of votes to be gained in those areas. In the states where they do campaign, candidates focus on urban areas, where most voters live. The electoral college does not cause a national campaign inclusive of rural areas—the electoral college causes the exact opposite.

Meanwhile, France, Indonesia, Mexico, Poland, and many other countries elect their president by national popular vote. Those candidates do not spend their entire campaigns in Paris, Jakarta, Mexico City, or Warsaw.

Claim #3

The electoral college prevents one or two states, or two or three big cities, from determining the winner of the presidential election.

Yes, Clinton’s national popular vote margin last year was determined by California, but Trump’s electoral vote margin was determined by Texas. Without the electoral votes of Texas last year, Trump would have lost.

The combined populations of the three largest US cities (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago) are less than 5% of the US population. Their combined metro area populations, including suburbs, are 13% of the US population. It’s not clear how 5% of the population will outvote 95% of the population in a national vote. Yet numerous blog and social media posts and comment sections on websites insisted that the electoral college was needed to prevent that after last year’s elections.

Finally, this claim also seems to contain a clear bias against the type of people perceived to live in cities, as if those people should get fewer votes than people in rural areas. Trees and blades of grass and prairie dogs and cows don’t vote; people do.

The claim is not only inaccurate, but it is also prejudicial.

Claim #4

The United States is a federal system, and states should play a role in choosing the president.

One key flaw of this claim is that the Constitution’s Framers did not create the electoral college for this particular purpose; they created it because they distrusted popular opinion. Second, state governments themselves have not been involved in choosing electors since the 1820s. Third, the US Senate is the part of the national government that the Framers created to represent states, while the president is a nationwide office.

Potential Replacements

Given that the most common modern arguments for keeping the electoral college either are based on false information and assumptions or have major weaknesses, the next question becomes how to replace or fix the system—and there is no easy answer.

Some have advocated that all 50 states adopt the Maine and Nebraska system of awarding electoral votes by congressional district. The main drawback is that most states today engage in partisan gerrymandering, a practice that has only become worse with the advent of computer modeling. Awarding presidential electors through congressional districts would likely worsen the tendency of legislatures to gerrymander and might also cause presidential elections to be fixed by partisan maneuvering when creating district boundaries. . However, to correct for this concern, states might switch to independent commission systems of drawing districts, or the US Supreme Court could get more involved to end partisan gerrymanders.

Switching to a national popular vote system to elect a president would require a constitutional amendment, always a difficult if not impossible proposition in a partisan atmosphere. One way to achieve this shift while bypassing the need for a constitutional amendment is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an idea that has been proposed and promoted in the last decade by a group of law professors, computer science professors, political science professors, retired members of Congressmen from both parties, and several newspaper editorial boards.

With the Compact, states would pass laws agreeing to give their electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote instead of the winner of the state popular vote. These individual state laws would only go into effect when the total number of states having passed such laws would account for 270 or more electoral votes (the number a candidate currently needs to win the electoral college). In effect, the election winner would be whatever presidential candidate got the most nationwide votes.

So far, ten states and Washington DC have approved the compact–those states and DC account for 165 electoral votes. But all of these states traditionally vote Democrat, reflecting the modern partisan attitudes toward the electoral college.

Another alternative, which would also require a constitutional amendment but would ensure that the winner of the presidential election demonstrated majority support in the country, would be a system involving some sort of runoff election. In such a system, if no candidate received over half of the national vote, there would be a second election between the top two candidates, or perhaps an instant runoff if voters ranked candidates on the ballot.

The two-round runoff system is used in presidential elections in France, Poland, Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil, and Ghana. It is also used in the United States for non-presidential elections in Louisiana, with variations also in effect in California, Georgia, and Washington state. Such a system would require voters to vote twice for president; ranked voting would be complicated for voters to follow, yet the complicated American primary system already requires voters to vote more than once for presidential candidates and to try to figure out numerous rules for convention delegate allocations. Choosing a president that a majority of voters support may be worth the change.


Robert Speel

Robert Speel

Dr. Robert Speel received his PhD in Government from Cornell University and a BA degree in political science and sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. He is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, and has also taught at Ryerson University in Toronto as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration. He is the author of Changing Patterns of Voting in the Northern United States, from Penn State University Press. His teaching and research interests include elections and voting behavior, regional politics, ethnic and racial politics, public policy, state and local government, Congress and the presidency, and Canadian politics.
Robert Speel

Written by Robert Speel

Dr. Robert Speel received his PhD in Government from Cornell University and a BA degree in political science and sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. He is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, and has also taught at Ryerson University in Toronto as...
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