Every year we have a presidential election, the debate of the electoral college always comes up. It can get rather heated as so many want it gone because they feel their candidate didn't get a fair shake. Change it all so the "right" one wins.
But the truth is that most people don't understand what they are debating. They just are arguing because they think their side got the shaft. They want changes that will make them feel better. But I think they need to understand what they are debating first.
Why the Electoral College Was Created
To understand the Electoral College, one must go all the way back to the colonial times before the American Revolution was a seed in the hearts of passionate men. They were as different as night and day. A large mistake of today's world is to see the colonies as one large entity with different regional names. The truth was that each colony was different in thought and culture. It was like more than a dozen different countries that found themselves with a similar problem.
The colonists were used to be dictated by a monarchy. They did not have a representative in the British government. The new country wanted each person within its borders who had legal rights to have a voice when it came to the one person would lead them and set the foundation for laws and policies during their term. But how does a country of British descendent with people from all over the Western world to do that? They turned to the great Ancient society of Greece and decided to give democracy a try. Each person would have a say. That appealed to everyone, but the practicality of it came under scrutiny. Think of it. Every single person's voice was a direct say into the matters. Sounds great but getting every single person to be able to vote at the same time on every single law would bog the entire country down. No one would get anything done as they were constantly listening to arguments and voting. Not practical on a large scale such as the new country was planning. They had to do something that gave an equal voice without being cumbersome. Then there was the actual politics.
Some colonies were viewed as stronger than others. Money and political power resided in a few colonies with Virginia being the top dog. The power rested in a select few, and that went against what the colonists stood for. Remember that they were in disputes with Great Britain over the governing that was done of the colonies without a representative from said colonies. Men from the upper classes of England were making policy for all classes in lands thousands of miles away that the majority of those same men had not even visited. They wanted a voice and an even playing field. If the new colonies followed the path of true democracy, Virginia would lead the new nation in every single decision. The rest of the colonies saw that as unfair.
The purpose of the electoral college was to give each state to have an equal voice in a land where population density was not equally disbursed. Keep that in mind as we continue.
How the Electoral College Works
The average American has no idea how this process works. We have been raised to think of America as a democracy. In reality, that is incorrect. Our government is based on democratic ideals, but it is a republic. Instead of each law being voted on by each individual person which wasn't realistic, representatives are elected to do all that work for the citizens. Per Article II, Clause 2:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector. (US Constitution)
The number of representatives plus three for the District of Columbia is the number of who would be in the Electoral Collège. How it worked from there was stated in Clause 3:
The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President. But in chusing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; A quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall chuse from them by Ballot the Vice President. (US Constitution)
Very wordy and can be confusing to some people. I suggest you read it slowly But a great interpretation was found on ProCon.org:
In each state, a group of electors is chosen by each political party. On election day, voters choosing a presidential candidate are actually casting a vote for an elector. Most states use the “winner-take-all” method, in which all electoral votes are awarded to the winner of the popular vote in that state. In Nebraska and Maine, the candidate that wins the state’s overall popular vote receives two electors, and one elector from each congressional district is apportioned to the popular vote winner in that district. For a candidate to win the presidency, he or she must win at least 270 Electoral College votes.
Do you see how it works? Virginia isn't the powerful colony it once was. That has been replaced by New York and California. That is two of our fifty states who could conceivably carry any vote if it was a true democracy. Whoever New York and California wanted would win each time. Does that sound fair to the rest of the country? With the Electoral College, Maine gets a stronger voice in who leads the country than it would if it was a strict popular vote. But more people live in New York than Maine. Because of that, the Electoral College gives the larger state a larger voice but not enough to make the smaller state feel insignificant. Closer to the equality ideal.
The Debate Today
When we review American history, most of don't blink an eye at this procedure. It has been this way since beginning of America's founding, but then a presidential election comes around. The party whose candidate gets more of the popular vote but not the Electoral College wants the entire system abolished as archaic and something more modern and "fair" to be used. It's not fair when your guy doesn't win. Fair?
ProCon.Org gives three main reasons people want to get rid of the Electoral College: No longer relevant, doesn't truly balance the power of the statues (swing state issue), the popular decision is ignored. You can read the details on the site, and I highly suggest you do. The pros and the cons are listed and explained.
America is dissatisfied with the results and the process to get there. They want it to be more democratic in nature with the popular guy winning the coveted position. But is that fair too? Obviously, this is a problem.
Now list the many elections where this was a problem. Many? How many do you think had the popular vote winner not become president? Five. 5! Five men lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College. 58 presidential elections and 91% of them had the popular guy win. Perspective changes a bit and makes the debate a little more murky.
The issue doesn't arise often and is usually due to intense and emotional elections. Though I did notice that Lincoln's was not listed. Even in that debated election, the popular vote flowed with the Electoral College. You can follow links to see more detailed articles on each of these elections.
Options To Replace
So what could we use? There are obvious ones and some that are unique. Let's do a quick overview.
Popularity - Whoever gets the most votes wins. That's it. If the vast majority of the votes doesn't go all to one person, there can be a run-off to get the majority behind the winner.
Elimination - Voters choose their top favorites and who gets the most points wins.
Ranking - Each voter ranks the candidates in the preferred order they would like to see them win. Again it comes down to who has the most points.
The options center around most popular by the majority of voting citizens. Again, that sounds logical. But there are dangers.
Dangers of Replacing
This system has worked for hundreds of years and has inspired many other countries as they created their own democratic system. The only time it is felt to fell is less than half a dozen times during these years. A detailed look can show where it can be seen as failing other times, but the call to end the electoral college is raised only a handful of times.
Two states have replaced their winner gets all electoral votes and have found some success, but even that option is wrought with pitfalls. CNN summed it up:
Two notable exceptions are Maine and Nebraska. These are the only two states that award their electoral votes on the basis of who wins in their congressional district. If a ticket wins a plurality of the vote in a congressional district, they are awarded an electoral vote. Whichever ticket wins the popular vote across the states receives the "bonus two" electoral votes that each state receives corresponding to their representation in the United States Senate.
If the entire country imitated these two states, there were be a lot more gerrymandering going on. That is the process of designing districts strategically to benefit one side more than the other. If the Republicans are in power, they will draw district lines to their advantage. The Democrats would do the same when they were in power.
The current system might not be perfect, but what in life is? If we change it, would it only open the door for worse evils to lurk in and create more contested elections?
Where Do We Go From Here?
I am not one to support change for the sake of change. I'm also not one to accept what has always been done just because it has. Logic and common sense are the best roads to take which most don't know even exist.
We should consider new options every year and with every election. We should stick with what we have for now until a better solution can be found and the majority of the country agrees with it. Always look for improvement but only make it when it is the right and smart thing to do.
Keep the debate alive. Just bring some good sense in with it.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 29, 2021:
Hi Rebecca, You have laid out in easy-to-understand fashion why the electoral college exists. Generally speaking, it only comes to the forefront in people's minds when Presidents are elected who did not win the popular vote. Thankfully, that does not happen too often. Of course, when it does, people get upset.