The electoral college is a fun thing. Lots of people have been talking about it lately, specifically about getting rid of it.
Naturally, there are proponents on both sides of this argument, but also naturally, it’s a complicated issue.
Here’s How It Works
Let’s start somewhere simple with something we can all agree on – the United States elects a president every four years. On Election Day, the American people cast their votes, and shortly afterward, usually that same night, a winner is declared.
As the numbers trickle in, news stations will report on which state went to which candidate, and there’s usually a map coloring each state either red or blue that fills in as the night goes on. You’ve seen it. You know.
But where it gets tricky is that these votes aren’t the actual numbers that matter. They make up the popular vote.
The electoral vote is the one that does matter. The electoral vote decides the winner.
When a state is declared for a candidate, it’s understood that all of the electoral votes designated to that state will go to that candidate. For instance, if a candidate wins the state of Texas, then it can be safely assumed that the candidate will win all of Texas’ 38 electoral votes.
The first candidate to win 270 electoral votes wins the presidency. It’s just simple math. There are 538 total electors, so 270 is one more than half of those.
Once a state is declared for either candidate, the electors a little later and cast their votes. As I mentioned, it can be safely assumed that the candidate will win all of the electoral votes from the states they’ve won, but the electors are not obligated to vote the way the state voted. For example, if the Republican candidate won Texas, then Texas’ 38 electors will go in to cast their vote for the Republican candidate, honoring the voting public’s wishes. However – they don’t have to. If the elector chooses to disregard the public’s vote, he or she can do so and vote for the opposing candidate. In that case, the candidate will not get all 38 electoral votes and their road to 270 becomes a bit rockier.
The candidate does not officially win the election until the electoral vote is cast and tallied.
How many electors does each state get?
Well, it’s simple. You combine the number of representatives each state has in both houses of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate. For Texas, we have 36 representatives and two senators, so we get 38 electoral votes. The congress people are not the ones casting the electoral votes, though. The electors are completely different people. The idea is that they’re supposed to be nonpartisan and unbiased.
Let’s go back a tiny bit, though, to the founding of our nation.
When our founders were designing our government, they decided on a bicameral congress – two chambers, one with equal representation for each state and one with representation analogous to population. This way, the states with larger populations felt more proportionally represented in the House, while the smaller states also felt adequately heard in the Senate. The creation of this system became known as the Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise of 1787.
This compromise seemed like a good idea at the time, but today, the US population is so unevenly distributed, that now, states with very large and very small populations have a disproportionate amount of power in Congress. For instance, Wyoming has the lowest population of any state in the US and California has the highest, but they both have equal voices in the upper house of Congress. Along those lines, Wyoming has three electors, which is already generous considering how low its population is, and they each represent less people than each of California’s 55 electors, which is already less than they should have based on population alone.
So…it’s an ongoing problem that seems to be getting worse.
On top of that, you have the issue of distribution. One thing that political pundits like to say is that college graduates, who tend to vote blue, should stay in their hometowns upon graduation instead of fleeing for the coasts. That’s one of the reasons why we have California and New England that primarily vote blue and a lot of middle America voting red. The map is all askew.
The Three-Fifths Compromise
Along the same lines of designing the bicameral congress, dividing up the representatives became an issue between the northern and southern states. Can you guess why?
The southern states wanted representation for their large populations, even though large percentages of those large populations came from slaves who were not allowed to vote. In a famous disagreement between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, a compromise was finally reached. Each slave would count as 3/5 of a person towards the state’s overall population.
Anyway, I bring this up because it always comes back to representation in government – who gets some and how much, and who gets practically none.
The Electoral College
Finally…why is this even a thing?
With the advent of the bicameral congress and with the three-fifths rule firmly in place, the number of congressional representatives were assigned to each state. The easiest and most appeasing way of taking all of this into account in a general election was to substitute electoral votes for the popular vote. This was also seen as a protection for slavery in the south, lest the more populous north gang up against the south and use all of their popular voting power against them.
Furthermore, in the case that neither candidate reaches the required number of electors to win the election, the House of Representatives chooses the president. This was put in place in an effort to balance the people’s vote with the power of government. This has only happened twice in US history, once in 1800 and again in 1824.
“I’m for it!”
There are obvious issues with the electoral college and reasons that people, including a few 2020 presidential candidates, want to get rid of it. I’ll get into those, but there are some reasons why it’s worth keeping, even if it should still be amended to better suit our current population, distribution, and representation.
For one, if a candidate is popular in one particular region, theoretically, they can just campaign in that region and rack up all of those votes to win the popular vote. However, according to this hypothetical, they would not be representing the needs of the rest of the nation. The idea is that, because of the distribution of electoral votes across the country, no one region could completely determine the election.
That said, hyper-focused campaigning kind of already happens. Nowadays, you often see candidates campaigning hard in swing states, perhaps Ohio and Iowa, and neglecting the more predictably red or blue states, like California or Texas.
Another pro-college argument is that it protects our two-party system.
Great. I guess. If you ask me, and I’d venture a lot of other people, it’s probably time to get rid of the two-party system, anyway. God forbid we have more candidates to choose from. Competition is understood to be a good thing in practically every other instance, so I can’t imagine why that same principle wouldn’t apply here. It can only result in stronger and more representative candidates, overall. For the people who think the Dems have gone too far left and the Reps have gone too far right, or for all the people who identify as libertarian or independent or whatever, a 2+ party system could be a good thing.
Moving on, the argument stands that the founders wanted it this way because they didn’t trust the common man to decide the presidency.
A few of the founders actually did want direct elections, but that aside, the founders designed a lot of things that have since evolved. To use an obvious example, as a brown, non-property-owning female, I can vote. Back in 1787, I wouldn’t have been able to (assuming my Indian ancestors – actual Indians, not the indigenous tribes that were definitely not Indians – somehow found their way to the US in 1787).
To use a less obvious example, the nation itself has changed – physically and ideologically. It’s much more vast than the founders could have predicted it would be, and the population is distributed in ways they could not have foreseen. We have to account for these differences.
“I hate it!”
And here are some reasons why it sucks.
The most obvious reason why people hate it is because a candidate can win the popular vote and not the electoral vote. This has happened only a handful of times throughout US history, but notably, it’s happened the last two times a Republican president has been elected to the office, George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Naturally, people are frustrated about that because it implies that the person leading our nation does not actually hold the values and ideals of the majority of the voting public. It all feels very loop-holey.
Secondly, it encourages the importance of swing states and their needs over the needs of states that tend to vote more reliably one way or the other. Again, that’s why candidates campaign heavily in Iowa and not so much in California, even though there’s a huge population discrepancy between the two.
Speaking of swing states, if you live in any state that’s not a swing state, the feeling that your vote doesn’t count is real. If you vote for a Democrat in Texas or a Republican in California, you can really get the sense that you might as well not vote at all. (But definitely do. It still matters, however indirectly and however long it might take for that vote to actually make a difference.)
What are the candidates saying?
2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls have expressed the desire to get rid of the electoral college, notable Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
What’s interesting, though maybe not surprising, is that this has become a partisan issue. As it stands, generally speaking, the Democrats want to get rid of it and the Republicans want to keep it. As I mentioned earlier, the last two Republican presidents to win elections only won them thanks to the electoral college.
Something else that’s interesting, though not surprising at all is that Donald Trump was against the electoral college prior to him winning his election because of it.
Nope. Not surprising at all.
Because of the red-blue split, there seems to be an urban-rural split, too. Just the other day, Senator Lindsey Graham said that the Democrats only want to get rid of it because they “want rural America to go away politically.” That seems to be based in nothing, but what even is accountability anymore?
What replaces it?
The candidates who are against the electoral college need to come up with a replacement for it, but this sounds like such a daunting feat I can barely wrap my head around it.
First of all, it would require public support, which it actually already seems to have.
Also, we would need a constitutional amendment, and considering the rate at which this government gets anything done, that seems unlikely any time soon.
But the obvious issue lies in running the numbers.
This guy the other day tried to argue with me that statistics is a “fascinating” subject. I can see his point, but all I know is that I don’t want to be the one running any voter simulations and testing an infinite number of scenarios. I’ll leave that up to the experts. But…we need those experts now. It’s a numbers game. A solution isn’t going to be achieved if we don’t dive deep, deep into those simulations.
While the candidates who have spoken out against the electoral college haven’t really offered much by way of a replacement yet, that’s the next conversation we’ll need to have. Remember when the Republicans tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act but didn’t have anything else ready to go in its place? It didn’t go so well. You can’t just identify a problem and then not even have an idea of a solution. It doesn’t need to be completely fleshed out, but identifying the problem is only the first step. Understanding it would be next, and then you have explore your alternative options before finally making a decision.
Speaking of “alternative” options, one that seems to be generating a good deal of interest is ranked-choice or alternative voting. Basically, instead of having only two candidates from two major parties in a binary election process, voters would be able to rank their top choices in order from most to least favorable. That way, smaller parties would have a legitimate place on the ballot, and the idea of smaller independent candidates “stealing” votes from the larger two candidates would be more or less eliminated. Here’s a video that explains it far better and in much more detail. It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad.
We all want to feel heard in our government, and the solution shouldn’t be for city-dwellers to redistribute themselves into rural areas or vice versa. The system clearly isn’t working as well as we’d like it to and it was designed for a nation that looked a lot different from the one we have today. It’s a conversation worth having, even if the solution isn’t so drastic as completely repealing the electoral college and replacing it with something else entirely. Maybe there’s another way that some genius mathematician can illuminate for us. Fingers crossed.