In U.S. presidential elections, close races occasionally occur. The Electoral College is a mechanism, by which ties are nearly impossible. If a tie should happen, the nation would have found itself in a predicament and heated controversy. This appears to be a complex solution to a simple problem, a redundancy to a simple popular vote, a ‘one person, one vote’ approach. Voters often question not only what the Electoral College is but also why it is. It seems to exist simply to amplify the margin of victory in the popular vote and is exclusively employed in presidential elections. However, it is a time-tested success, another testament to the forward thinking of the creators of the Electoral College system of voting for President, the Founding Fathers.
History of the Electoral College
The Founders Intention
Members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 faced the difficult question of how to elect a president. They were severely at odds with each other over the question of presidential selection and anguished over the concept of creating a workable system. The Electoral College system that emerged during the very last week of the Convention did seem to satisfy all the diverse factions (Katz, n.d.). The intent of this system was that the selection of a president be based solely on merit and without regard to state of origin or political party by that state’s most informed and educated individuals. Each state has a number of electors equal to the number U.S. Representatives plus its (2) U.S. Senators. These electors then vote for President. The method of choosing the electors was remanded to the individual state legislatures thereby calming those states already distrustful of a centralized government.
This understanding built upon an earlier compromise in the design of the congress itself and thus satisfied both large and small states. The nation of thirteen states wanted to retain their own governmental powers and the prevalent thought of the time was that political parties were detrimental to liberty. These founders were of the opinion that men should not campaign for public office. ‘The office should seek the man. The man should not seek the office.’ In 1787, the country’s population was distributed along a thousand miles of Atlantic coastline that was hardly, if at all, connected by reliable communication or transportation. “How, then, to choose a president without political parties and national campaigns without upsetting the carefully designed balance between the presidency and the Congress on one hand and states and the federal government on the other?” (Kimberling, n.d.). Elector’s votes were counted by the states legislative districts, the method favored by many of the Founders. As a result of this method, a state’s electoral votes were divided among two or more presidential candidates.
System within the States
Though most of the framers of the constitution would have objected, political parties began to rise to power during the 1830’s. Because of this, states began to use winner-take-all elections to choose presidential electors. In this system, the party that won a majority of the state is awarded all of that state’s electors. Today, all states except Maine, Colorado and Nebraska use at-large, or the winner-take-all system. As the presidency became a more democratic institution instead of following the concepts of federalism, debate regarding the presidential selection process emerged. This is a debate that continues to this day.
States that have a small population contend that if the electoral system were eradicated, presidential candidates would have no reason to campaign there or to advertise. “Why visit a small state with a media market that reaches, say, 100,000 people, when a visit to a large state can put the candidate in touch with millions?” (Gregg, 2001). The McConnell Center for Political Leadership at the University of Louisville studied the rationale behind the public’s perception that a direct, one-person-one-vote system would be more equitable than the electoral system. The findings debunked popular perceptions that abolishing the current system of presidential elections would improve the process. Popular opinion is that if the 2000 election had been based on a national popular vote, the Florida debacle of hanging chads and dimpled ballots would not happened.
In reality, the Electoral College saved the nation from a much worse problem. Imagine the distress of the nation in such a close election if a simple plurality of the national vote determined the outcome of the election. “With just a few hundred thousand votes separating the candidates, every vote in every precinct, in every state would have been worthy of a recount and every recount in every county subject to suit and countersuit” (Gregg, 2001). We still might not know who won.
Opponents of the Electoral College argue for a direct national election, that it would more represent the diversity of the nation. In the 2000 election, Al Gore acquired half a million more votes than George W. Bush. It would appear that Gore was able to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters than Bush. But Gore’s support came from heavily inhabited municipal areas. A map of the county-by-county results of the United States following the 2000 vote showed only small areas of Democrat Blue among a wide expanse of Republican Red. “Bush won majorities in areas representing more than 2.4 million square miles while Gore was able garner winning margins in only 580,000. Vice President Gore could fly from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles without flying over a county he was able to win” (Gregg, 2001). This provides proof that if not for the Electoral College presidential candidates would only campaign in heavily populated areas. They would have little incentive to bother with rural areas.
The Electoral College was intended and does in fact insure a more diverse representation than would a direct, popular vote. Many will say that there is a national popular vote and Al Gore won the election. Fundamentally, the debate of the popular versus the Electoral College vote is meaningless. States are given the power by the Constitution to choose electors. Today, every state assigns electoral votes in proportion to a popular election. This has given a perception that the election process was designed to employ both methods but has no basis in law. The existence of the Electoral College affects the way political parties organize their campaigns.
If the 2000 election had been based on a simple national popular vote, both the Gore and Bush campaigns would have made fundamental strategic changes that could have changed the outcome of the race. “Bush would like to have hunkered down in Texas to eek out every last vote while Gore would have spent most of his time traveling the coast of California and the inner city of New York to wrest every possible vote he could from his core constituencies. States like West Virginia and New Mexico would have largely been ignored in favor of the big media markets” (Gregg, 2001).
Though flawed, the argument to abolish the system is compelling. They argue that voting apathy levels in this country is partly to blame on the Electoral College. Many states are predestined red or blue so there is little incentive to wait in line at the polling booth. In addition, if it makes sense in a democracy to elect all offices ranging from dog catcher to U.S. Senator by popular vote, then it makes sense for the highest office. One person, one vote; it’s a simple concept blurred by the antiquated and patently unfair Electoral College process. There would be no red or blue states to divide people along regional lines. The system can undermine legitimacy when the electoral vote differs from a popular vote outcome. The concept that a presidential candidate has to collect the highest number of votes in a certain combination of states to win is absurd.
Opponents to the present Electoral College usually favor a direct election system. A system of direct elections would inherently create incentives for a candidate to campaign in small states. They would receive some electoral reward for their effort, since even if a state were lost; the votes gained there would still count in a popular vote system. Under this plan, each voter would be eligible to directly cast a vote for the president; one person, one vote. The Electoral College would be eliminated. One Direct Election plan would require a majority vote for president with a national run-off, if necessary, between the top two candidates.
Others have recommended establishing a minimum percentage (40 or 45 percent) for election. Critics of this plan make the case that campaigns would become much more expensive because all votes in each state are equal and candidates would feel the need to campaign in every state. “Indeed, one has only to look to history or comparative governments to see how easily such a system could disintegrate into multi-candidate races, which would, in turn, devolve into a system of regular runoffs or fractious coalition governments” (Ross, 2004). Even more importantly, “the financial calculus of election campaigns in a direct-election system might help level the playing field between large and small states.” (Klinkner & McClellan, 2000).
Proposals to abolish the Electoral College have failed largely because alternatives appear more problematic than the current system. The Electoral College, though an antiquated and imperfect system, is not on the way out and most likely never will be. Even if 75 percent of both houses of congress approved of a constitutional amendment, the state legislatures would not approve the change. The smaller populous states would feel left out of the process and rightly so. Whether Americans decide to keep, change or even eliminate the Electoral College, democracy itself is not at stake only the question of how to channel and organize the popular will. The intent of this system was that the selection of a president be based solely on merit and without regard to state of origin or political party by that state’s most informed and educated individuals. The fact that the Electoral College has performed its function for over 200 years and in over 50 presidential elections by ensuring that the president has both sufficient popular support to govern and that his popular support is sufficiently distributed throughout the country to enable him to govern effectively is a tribute to the genius of the Founding Fathers.
- Gregg, Gary L. “Keep the College: Debunking Myths.” National Review. (2001).
- Katz, Ellis. “The American Electoral College.” International Information Programs. (n.d.). Temple University.
- Kimberling, William C. “The Electoral College.” FEC Office of Election Information. (n.d.). Federal Election Commission. Web.
- Klinkner, Philip & McClellan, James. “Symposium – The Electoral College.” Insight on the News. (2000).
- Ross, Tara. “The Electoral College: Enlightened Democracy.” Legal Memorandum #15. The Heritage Foundation. (2004).