The Electoral College: should it be abolished?

Not surprisingly, millions of Americans are angry at the Electoral College right now, especially Democrats; the 2016 Presidential election marks the second time in less than 20 years that the Democratic candidate received more votes than the winning Republican candidate. Before reacting in anger, though, we should all look at why the Electoral College was created.

In the Federalist Papers, #68, Alexander Hamilton wrote about his fears of having the president directly elected by the people. At the time, only about 10% of Americans were literate, and Hamilton felt that many people would respond based on emotional appeals. What most of us do not realize is that, at the time the Electoral College was created, it was left to each state to determine how it would choose its electors; today, of course, all 50 states have chosen to let its voters determine who the electors would be. This is the primary reason that has been cited for having the Electoral College.

However, there are two additional arguments that support the Electoral College. The first is that, when the Constitution was drafted, the 13 states regarded themselves as autonomous entities. In other words (avoiding political science geek speak), the 13 states were much closer to today’s European Union than the country we know today. In getting the Constitutional framers to compromise successfully, it was vital that each state be allowed to maintain at least some of its autonomy; this was well-accomplished by allowing the individual states to proclaim which candidate they supported.

The other supporting argument emerged as the country’s history unfolded. The tendency of the Electoral College, statistically, was to exaggerate the margin of victory of the winning candidate. While that may not seem advantageous, it meant that the losing side would be more likely to accept the results of the election and to support the incoming president.

So, should we abolish the Electoral College and replace it with the popular vote, given the three arguments above? Let’s look at the three arguments.

In response to Alexander Hamilton’s fears, we are already more democratic than he wanted the country to be, and our literacy rate is well over 98%. Does this mean that voters are less likely to respond to emotional appeals, given the prevalence of social media and the lack of limitations that candidates have in their campaigns?

In response to the second concern, we are no longer a country of autonomous states…at least not officially. I would argue that we still, at the cultural level, have a divide that seems to be growing and that the Electoral College is one of the direct causes of exaggerating that divide, perhaps even cause it. For instance, Oregon is labelled a “blue state,” and Texas a “red state,” but a closer look shows that the difference in registered Democrats and Republicans is less than 2% in both states.

The final concern, of course, has blown up in our faces in both 2000 and 2016. George W. Bush’s administration was weakened by the disparity between the electoral and popular votes, and we are already seeing widespread refusals to accept president-elect Trump. So much for exaggerating the size of the victory and generating extra support for the winner!

So, I would lean toward abolishing the Electoral College, given what is described above. The remaining question is how a popular vote would be conducted. Most people believe that there are greater opportunities for third parties under a popular vote system, with the possibility that, if no party received a majority of the vote, two or more parties would be forced to work together to create a majority. Such a system is used in the majority of parliamentary democracies. Another possibility would be to force a run-off if there was no clear majority; and there are many other possibilities to consider.

Here is a link to an excellent article on the Electoral College, whose author takes the opposite side from my conclusion:

Please note that I am not the one who is referring to Trump as a demagogue.


One thought on “The Electoral College: should it be abolished?

  1. Will D says:

    Well said. I think there are two big dangers of a simple majority vote that are only peripherally described here.

    First, I might expound more on the impact of the internet. Literacy in its original context here would have served to expand perspective beyond a physical social community. But with the advent of the internet and by extension the absolute volume of information freely available, both the group effect and confirmation bias substantially affect not only our social circles but our media consumption. I would argue that comparing literacy in the information era is reductive, and the tendency for people to reinforce their pre-existing beliefs still results in the reinforcement of yellow pad journalism and demagoguery. That is, it is dangerous to compare the metric of literacy now to either education or impartial observation of the available information.

    Second, I think it is important to recognize the inherent value of maintaining state powers and autonomy as possible. This mitigates poor legislative decisions that either peripherally affect the entire country or directly affect individual states, and allows legislative flexibility between incredibly diverse subcultures. I think it is also non-negligible to recognize the voting power of an individual state in a way that does not correlate directly to the total population of the state.

    Frankly, I would still prefer a substantially more direct system than the one in place. I think caucuses and primaries for state electors are archaic and rife with opportunities to exploit. I’d propose first a proportional electoral method that could provide a middle ground between the current winner-take-all electoral college and simple majority vote at the federal level. I’d also propose federal legislative pressure to eliminate caucuses and prohibitive state primary policies that would help reflect a more proportionate voter opinion at the state level. In the era of Citizens United vs. FEC campaign spending, it is imperative that we work to improve the correlation between majority opinion and legislative realization.

    Just my $0.02

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