Electoral College: Is this a democratic way to pick a president?
© 2001 John W. Cooper
The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy. I can remember the first time I exercised this right. I was proud to finally participate in a process that has kept our democracy the envy of the world. The election that I voted in was unusual, however. For the last 100 years, the presidential candidate who won the most popular votes won the election, but this time things were different. [i] The candidate who won the presidency in the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush, actually received fewer popular votes than the losing candidate, Al Gore. This raises some interesting questions: is the process by which Americans currently elect presidents democratic? If all Americans are equal, should not one American equal one vote? Does the Electoral College work, even though it disproportionably represents the votes of some Americans, or should we switch to a direct voting system?
There is some support for keeping the current system. One benefit is that generally, the Electoral College adds legitimacy to the winner of the popular vote by exaggerating the margin of the victory. For example, the Electoral College made it look as if John F. Kennedy was the clear winner of the 1960 presidential election. He received 303 electoral votes, while his opponent, Richard Nixon, received only 219 electoral votes.i The popular vote, on the other hand, was much closer: John F. Kennedy received 49.72% of the popular vote, while Richard Nixon received 49.55% of the popular vote.[ii] However, the winner of the most popular votes is not always the winner of the Electoral College. There have been four cases, one being the last election, where the winner of the most popular votes lost the presidency.
Another conceivable benefit of the Electoral College is that it can lessen the negative effects of third-party candidates who have no chance of winning. In order to win the presidency you have to win over half of the available electoral votes: 270 electors of the 538 electoral votes. A direct voting system makes it significantly more difficult for a candidate to win a majority. The winner still has to receive over half of the available votes. What does this mean? Currently, under the Electoral College, for better or worse, third-party candidates rarely interfere with the election results. The 1996 and 1992 presidential elections illustrate this point. The winner, in both of these elections, succeeded in winning over half of the necessary electoral votes, while failing to win over 50% of the popular vote.[iii] This happens, because even if a third party candidate is running strong nationally, let us say 20% of the popular vote, he or she has to win a majority in an individual state to receive a single vote in the Electoral College. Without the Electoral College, runoff elections in both 1992 and 1996 would have been needed. This definitely is another inconvenience of eliminating the Electoral College, but the more important question is, inconveniences aside, does the Electoral College have the “right” candidate win, whomever that may be?
The problem comes when determining who is the “right” candidate. Critics of the Electoral College often point to the fact that Gore won by roughly 1/3 of a million votes, and still lost the presidency. In a direct election, all the votes would go in the same pot and Gore would have won. Why continue the archaic practice of electing the president with the Electoral College when the technology exists to have all the votes placed in the same pot? Although eliminating the Electoral College would seem to be fairer, in actuality that could not be farther from the truth. The process may seem somewhat unfair, but the results are more important than the appearance of the process. The results of eliminating the Electoral College are far-reaching and unpleasant.
If the Electoral College were eliminated, campaigns would change. Grassroots efforts would disappear for they would no longer really serve a valuable purpose. Currently, grassroots efforts, which involve Americans in the political process, are responsible for swinging highly contested states for one candidate or another. Their efforts change the results of the Electoral College significantly more than the results of the popular vote, because under the Electoral College a state can only send its electors to vote for one candidate. In a direct election, these grassroots efforts would lose their significance. Americans can expect increased national polling to determine what the most popular view is, and an unprecedented amount of money spent in densely populated states. Oh, and let us not forget the endless TV commercials of political candidates championing the causes of the latest public opinion poll.
Candidates run for president to win. It may be an unfortunate truth, but money matters; running a cost-effective campaign is essential to winning. Currently, the Electoral College provides an incentive for candidates to win the majority of the voters in all of the states and not only the popular vote, regardless of the state. When running a cost-effective campaign, there is no logical reason to waste valuable advertising dollars in states like Maine when the money can be spent in densely populated states like New York or California. Politicians no longer have to concern themselves with individual states’ issues if the Electoral College is eliminated. Sure, with a direct voting system votes are “equal,” but there are even fewer incentives for politicians to pay attention to the needs of smaller states. Moreover, minority populations are generally clumped within certain states. This means that even if on the national level they only make up a small percentage of the vote, in certain states, they make all the difference to winning. In the eyes of a politician attempting to win the presidency without the Electoral College, smaller states and minority voters, which currently matter, would no longer matter, and consequently every vote would not be equal under a direct voting system.
Nightmare scenarios begin to emerge if the densely populated areas along the east and west coast begin to control the nation and the nation becomes divided. The division is not as improbable as it may at first appear. In the last presidential election, Bush won 30 of 50 states and lost the popular vote. A majority of the people in 3/5 of the states favored Bush, but under a direct-voting system, he would have lost the election. This could become more extreme. Imagine a president losing 4/5 of the states and winning the election. Is this American? Targeting only the majority of American voters could create deep divisions along state lines. The president should be the leader of the nation as a whole and not over a particularly densely populated region. The president should have the support of the majority of the people in the states so that one state’s citizens are not sacrificed for the citizens of another. Eliminating the Electoral College undermines these principles. Every voter should matter. Every vote should be valued, not just the votes of highly populated states, not just the voters of California and Texas, but also the voters of Maine and Connecticut.
We live in a Representative Democracy, a Republic. Americans are not in favor of eliminating the Senate, because it is not fair to the states with a larger population, nor are Americans from smaller states suggesting that eliminating the House of Representatives would make America more democratic. Most Americans respect the importance of the balance of power between states’ rights and the rights of the population as a whole. This balance of power in our legislature has served our nation well. The Electoral College is nothing more than a continuation of these principles because states receive one electoral vote for each member of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which totals 538 electors (435 House + 100 Senate + 3 District of Columbia).i The founders of our country divided the legislature’s power to guard the less populated states from those with a greater share of the population. To argue that the Electoral College is undemocratic or not American is not far from arguing that the distribution of power in our nation’s legislature is undemocratic and needs reform. The Electoral College is nothing more than a combination of two essential components of our democracy. The Electoral College strikes a delicate balance between the rights of the minority and the majority so that all voices are heard.
[i] Tight election puts Electoral College under microscope
[ii] 1960 Election Results
[iii] 1992 Election Results/1996 Election Results