Why experts say it’s time to ditch the U.S. Electoral College

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The US Electoral College distorts campaigns, disenfranchises voters, and drives partisanship, say scholars who argue the popular vote is far better for choosing presidents.

Otherwise, “The great majority of American voters exercise no real political voice in the outcome of presidential elections,” says Doug McAdam, professor of sociology at Stanford University.

Under the United States Constitution, the Electoral College determines who is the president, based on vote totals in each state. The candidate who receives a majority of electoral votes (270) wins the presidency. Each state’s number of electors is equal to its number of members of Congress (representatives plus senators). Washington, DC, also has three electors, so the total number of Electoral College members is 538.

Four out of five Americans exercised no real electoral voice in the 2012 presidential election due to the winner-take-all Electoral College system, which made campaigns focus on the handful of “battleground” states that were up for grabs heading into the election.

Winner take all

“If we define ‘battleground’ states as those where the final margin of victory was 5 percent or less, only six of the 50 states qualify,” McAdam says. “They were Colorado, 4 percent; Florida, 1 percent; North Carolina, 3 percent; Ohio, 2 percent; Pennsylvania, 5 percent; and Virginia, 3 percent.”

The mean margin of difference in the remaining 44 states was a whopping 19 percent.

“Even with such populous states as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in the mix, the total population of the 2012 battleground states was barely 20 percent of the country’s total.”

“No principle is more fundamental to the theory of democratic governance than political equality; that is, the idea that every citizen’s voice or views should count as much as anyone else’s,” says McAdam, coauthor with Karina Kloos of the 2014 book Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America (Oxford University Press).

The current system violates this principle, McAdam says, due to its winner-take-all nature. In a close election, voters in one or more of the battleground states may determine the outcome of the contest.

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“What about all those citizens who reside in non-competitive states? Consider the loyal Republican who lives in California or the stalwart Mississippi Democrat? Every four years, voting for them is an exercise in political powerlessness, at least when it comes to the presidential race.”

Eliminating the Electoral College would empower voters, and would likely drive up voter registration and voting rates while creating a greater focus on issues (and not states) in presidential races.

“No single reform would deliver on this promise more than this one,” McAdam says.

But eliminating the Electoral College won’t be easy. An amendment, whether proposed by Congress or a national constitutional convention, must be ratified by either the legislatures of three-fourths (at present 38) of the states or state ratifying conventions in three-fourths of the states. Still, 17 such amendments have passed since the Constitution was adopted in 1789, the last being in 1992.

Lesser of all evils

Another flaw with the Electoral College occurs when none of the candidates wins 270 electoral votes. Then, the fate of the presidency goes to the US House of Representatives—taking it away from individual American voters. This happened in 1876, and given current conditions in the presidential campaigns, could happen in 2016, McAdam says.

The Electoral College issue vexed the framers at the 1787 Constitutional Convention down to their final days of debate—and they weren’t sure how it would work in practice, says Jack Rakove, a professor of history and of political science.

“They adopted the Electoral College not because they found it attractive in itself, but simply because it was the least objectionable alternative,” says Rakove, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning book Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (Vintage Books, 1997).

“The idea of a legislative appointment of the chief executive might have seemed more attractive, but the framers worried that that would make the president a tool of some dominant faction in Congress, and reduce the initiative and independence they wanted him to have.”

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Based on the one-person, one-vote concept and the national unity it could offer, Rakove also recommends replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote.

“The electoral weight of the citizen should not vary from one place to another based on the distorting effect of the ‘senatorial bump,’” which refers to the overrepresentation of small states in the Electoral College due to their two Senate-based electors, he says.

The last three US presidents have all suffered from attacks on the legitimacy of their election fueled in part by the perception of a nation largely divided into red and blue states.

“If we think of the electoral map as a tableau of national division, we form a disparaging view of the victor’s presidential authority right from the outset,” he says.

However, if the winning candidate was perceived to be the victor of a truly national election, partisanship might decrease. The way to begin the reform process is by establishing a prestigious national commission capable of recommending constitutional change.

A candidate can win the Electoral College—and as a result, the presidency—without winning the popular vote, Brady says. In fact, it’s happened four times: Andrew Jackson and Samuel Tilden, won the popular vote in 1824 and 1876, respectively, only to see their opponents walk into the White House. This also happened to Grover Cleveland in 1888; he won the popular vote but lost on electoral votes to Benjamin Harrison. And in 2000, George Bush prevailed similarly over Al Gore.

Source: Stanford University

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