Why we still use the electoral college
Is the electoral college still relevant?
It seems that in no previous election has the electoral college been the source of as much contention and debate as during the 2016 presidential election. At this point, most people are well aware that Donald Trump won the presidency, but that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote. Many people have been asking how this could happen and why we still follow an electoral college system when it can grant the presidency to someone who actually earned less votes than the other candidate.
The electoral college is a process by which each state is alotted a specific number of electors who place their votes for the presidency after the General Election. The system was originally conceived in 1787 by the creator’s of the Constitution, although many people may be surprised to learn that the phrase “electoral college” does not actually appear in the text of the Constitution. Rather, it states, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors….The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President.”
What this means is that on voting day, voters are not in fact voting for a president, but rather placing a vote for an elector who is appointed to vote for their designated party candidate.
It is not unheard of for the electoral college system as a whole to be brought into question after the winner of the electoral college differs from the winner of the popular vote, according to Nolan McCarty, PhD, who is Chair of the Department of Politics at Princeton University. In the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the outcome of the popular vote also differed from the outcome of the electoral college, granting Bush the presidency. However, Dr. McCarty said, the electoral college itself was not as debated after that election because there were controversies about potential voter fraud in Florida, where Jeb Bush, the eventual elected president’s brother, was governor.
“I’d say this is the one clean example where the issue really is about solely the electoral college and what role it plays,” Dr. McCarty said. “In the others, there were some other issues that kind of muddled that discussion.”
Before the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections, a discrepancy between the popular vote and electoral college outcomes had not occurred for over a century. Still, the 2016 election is the fifth time the electoral college and popular vote differed for a presidential election:
- In 2000, George W. Bush (R) lost the popular vote but was elected over Al Gore (D).
- In 1888, Benjamin Harrison (R) lost the popular vote but was elected over Grover Cleveland (D).
- In 1876, Rutherford Hayes (R) lost the popular vote but was elected over Samuel Tilden (D).
- In 1824, John Quincy Adams lost the popular vote but was elected over Andrew Jackson (Republican and Democratic parties were not yet solidified at this point, however, Jackson was years later referred to as the Founder of the Democratic party.)
Ironically, each time in which the popular vote has differed from the electoral college result (not necessarily including the 1824 election where parties weren’t clearly defined as they are now), the Republican party has been the party to benefit from the discrepancies in electoral and popular votes.
The electoral college was originally created to ensure that the most popular states could not dominate the presidential office by using their voting power, Dr. McCarty said. This was also during a time when states were divided in that some had large populations of slaves while others did not. Today, the electoral college has an impact by having smaller states such as Rhode Island, Delaware, or Wyoming to get somewhat overrepresented.
“That runs completely at odds with our modern conception of ‘one person, one vote,’” he said. “The idea that majority should rule, and if the majority backs one candidate, that candidate should win and govern—that’s a fairly modern conception of how the politics in the United States should work.”
Simply having the numerical majority is not sufficient to dominate politics in the United States, he added, but the system also prevents presidential candidates from focusing primarily on the most populated areas in the country.
“To the extent to which you don’t want candidates to simply maximize the number of core supporters who turnout and you want them to actually compete across the country–the electoral college can provide incentives for them to do that,” he said.
Also as a result of the electoral college, some states get very little attention during elections. “I understand why people in certain parts of the country feel somewhat put off by [that] fact…but the reason is because those states tend to be ones in which the parties already support their interests,” Dr. McCarty explained.
Perhaps the most quickly proposed alternative system to an electoral college would be a national popular vote. However, that process would also require national voting regulations, which we currently lack, to ensure that all states are voting and counting in the same way. Currently, the election system is basically at the state level.
It is also a lot easier to feel like an alternative is needed if you’re a Democrat, said Joseph White, PhD, who is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Policy Studies at Case Western University.
“In principle, it’s hard to justify the electoral college. I would rather have a different system. I don’t think there’s a good theoretical argument for the [it],” he said.
In terms of alternative systems, Dr. McCarty referenced an idea called Fair Vote, which would require there to be more than two candidates so that they can be ranked instead of simply one being chosen. “[That system] gives people the incentive to be the second place candidate of the three, and that can lead to more broad campaigning to be the second place choice,” he said, adding that he is not an advocate of such a plan because the current political system does not lend itself well to having numerous candidate parties. “Given the system we have of ‘winner take all,’ it’s hard to generate long sustained interest in a third party because there’s what we call the wasted vote phenomenon.”
In his view, a third-party vote is wasted in the sense that it passes up an opportunity to influence the election in a meaningful way, “not wasted in the sense that you can express your views. But since neither [Gary Johnson nor Jill Stein] had much of a chance of winning any state at all…they end up being spoilers more than competitive parties,” he said.
He adds that in order for more than two candidates to have a chance at being sustained in the long run, the system would have to undergo drastic changes.
Dr. White likens the third-party vote to abstaining, but making a statement while doing so. “If you want to change the world,” he said, “it makes a lot more sense to go out and capture one of the two parties, which is what just happened.”
Technically speaking, Trump will not be elected president until December 19, when the 538 electors will place their votes for president. In the last several weeks, petitions have been circulating online and via social media to encourage electors to vote for Clinton instead of Trump, for reasons including that Clinton won the popular vote. One such petition has over 4.7 million signatures, though it is worth noting that the petition is not limited to only registered voters.
“They’re not really trying to win the popular vote as much as they would otherwise, and so we can’t really judge from the popular vote when they campaigned to win the electoral college. What would have happened if they campaigned to win the popular vote?” Dr. White asked.
“The candidates knew the system, and campaigned accordingly,” Dr. McCarty agreed, adding that they would have campaigned differently if the election was to be decided by the popular vote. For example, he said Clinton would probably campaign more in California and New York and spend less time in rural Pennsylvania and Ohio while Trump would probably have focused more attention to big southern cities like Dallas, Atlanta, and Houston.
But the petition is accurate in that electors are not bound to vote for their designated party.
“There’s nothing in the Constitution that specifies that electors have to vote the way their voters voted,” Dr. McCarty explained.
In history, there are numerous examples where electors decided to vote for someone other than the person they were elected to support, he explained, saying they normally wrote in the name of a third party candidate or famous person, not usually the opposing candidate.
“The main reason why it’s rare is not because necessarily there are strong norms against it; it’s that the parties themselves nominate the electors. You don’t get to be an elector unless you’re a pretty loyal partisan,” he explained. “This race is a little different because for reasons I don’t quite understand, the parties didn’t do a good enough job of vetting their electors.”
Still, there are some state laws against electors voting contrary to how they were intended. However, those state laws have never thoroughly been tested, Dr. McCarty explained, and with a strict reading of the Constitution, it may be found that those laws are unconstitutional. Still, penalties would not prohibit it from occurring.
Some electors have come forward in advance saying they will not place their vote for Trump, however, the margin for any real effect would be at least 37 electors, which would deny the President-elect the majority of votes (270 are needed).
Even if, hypothetically, enough electors refused to vote for Trump, the vote would then go to the House of Representatives, which is currently controlled by Republicans.
“It would be absurd if the House of Representatives elected the president, although it did happen last season on [the TV show] Veep!” Dr. McCarty explained. “Nothing really can happen on December 19 that will change the fact that Trump will be President, but there perhaps will be a larger number of symbolic what we call faithless electors.”
Dr. White also reiterated the fact that the electors in the electoral college are free to vote however they like.
“If 35 or 40 electors decided to push their votes to Hillary, they could go ahead and do it. And an asteroid could hit the White House, too,” he laughed. “Let’s just say that the odds are much, much, much, much, much higher against that than the Cavs coming back from a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors. It’s not even in the same spectrum. It’s in the asteroid-hitting-the-White-House realm.”
While it is theoretically possible, he continued, it’s hard to imagine what Trump would have to do for that to occur. “If Republicans really didn’t like him suddenly, then they’d just probably elect him anyway and then impeach him so they’ve got Mike Pence,” he said, since if you’re a Republican, that would be a lot better than getting Hillary Clinton.
Dr. McCarty acknowledges that this election marked a turning point in American politics in multiple ways, but does not see it as a turning point in terms of whether or not the country will continue to have the electoral college. Changing the electoral college would require changing the Constitution, which necessitates ¾ of the states to agree. However, smaller states, in a sense, feel as if they benefit from the electoral college because their votes don’t get drowned out by states like California, New York, and Texas, he explained.
“There will be a little more press attention on the 19th than there normally is. Eight [faithless electors] would be pretty striking. And it would be something people should take note of and recognize that it’s unusual and that there’s something wrong in the country when this happens.”
Dr. White also echoed some concerns over the general state of society and politics today.
“I think when you have a country which is as polarized as ours is, even if the right side wins with a 1% victory in the popular vote, that’s an awfully large difference in public policy as a result. That makes me nervous that small margins can lead to huge differences in public policy,” he said.
Still, the very existence of the Constitution was supposed to be a solution to that by making it hard to get things done, he continued. Checks and balances aren’t working quite as well as they once did, but at the same time, most people hate the checks and balances, calling it gridlock.
“If you want more modest change, you have proportional representation and you get five or six parties and they bargain to create a government so there’s not the kind of major swings back and forth,” he said.
Relative to what it was originally supposed to do, he states there is no legitimate rationalization for the electoral college.
“It’s sort of hard to come up with a principled argument as to why [the electoral college is] a good idea as opposed to having the person who got the most votes win,” Dr. White said. “It’s not that it’s undemocratic; it’s that it’s unrepresentative.”
Aside from the difficulty in getting the small states to agree to change the Constituion, it also isn’t something that whichever party won the election would want to change, especially if it’s a situation where as Dr. White says, “the wrong side wins.”
“Basically, we are stuck with a 230-year-old idea that wasn’t a very good idea to begin with,” he concluded. “And we’re stuck with it.”