The Electoral College is not a newcomer to controversy. Having placed five presidential candidates who did not win the majority of votes in office, many Americans pose the question, What is the point of this institution in the first place?
Unfortunately, the answer lies over 200 years back into our nation’s history, causing issues centuries later. With the 2020 presidential election just around the corner, now more than ever, the voting system in America is in dire need of revision.
Despite the Electoral College proving relatively durable throughout the years, many Americans still feel unsatisfied with the current system. According to a Pew Research Center poll published in March 2020, 58 percent of U.S. adults are against the Electoral College and in favor of the popular vote. Changing the voting system to favor whoever receives the majority of votes would solve many issues within the voting system and simply make more sense in modern day America. So why do we have the Electoral College in the first place?
For the most part, it is because the Electoral College is a system that was built to function in 18th and 19th century America, not today. The Electoral College came as the direct result of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where much of our nation’s structure was to be decided. The popular idea at the time was that the decision of who would make up the executive branch be left to the members of Congress. On the other hand, James Wilson, a man quite ahead of his time, suggested that the sole leader of our country be elected via the popular vote of the people. This idea was met with great backlash, as national campaigning had not yet been established at the time, meaning many worried voters would not even know who or what they were voting for.
With many in support of Congress or state legislature electing the executive branch, the idea of this power belonging to the people via popular vote was losing hope. Wilson then suggested the idea of indirect election, a compromise of sorts. This idea meant that each state would appoint electors equal to the number of its United States senators and representatives. The House of Representatives would be based on individual state population, while each state would be granted two senators to balance out power for smaller states. Thus, the Electoral College was born.
On paper, the system seems foolproof and free of controversy. Yet over the years, problems have arisen causing disapproval of the system. One major problem that has come up is unequal state representation. Because of the fact that each state is guaranteed two electoral votes to coincide with its senatorial representation, sparsely populated states have garnered an unfair advantage in elections. In the 2016 election for example, Wyoming received one electoral vote for almost every 200,000 people. While California on the other hand received only one electoral vote for every 700,000 people, showing that the representation for citizens varies depending on their region.
According to Professor Gordon Hylton at Marquette University, this bias towards small states has proven to play a decisive role in three presidential elections, the most recent taking place in 2000. Had Electoral College votes been allocated by population without the two votes coming from the senate, Al Gore would have defeated George. W Bush 225 votes to 211. With Bush serving as president during one of the most trying terms in U.S. history with 9/11, the Afghan War and the Great Recession all taking place, it is extremely hard to believe that this hole in the Electoral College system did not prove to have incredible effects on the outcome of world history.
Additionally, the idea of a “winner-take-all” system for accounting for votes has also proved controversial. The fact that whatever candidate wins the majority of votes in a certain state receives ALL the electoral votes for that state overrides the preference of countless numbers of voters. As a result, the system greatly favors whatever candidate is running for major parties. This also means that candidates really only feel the need to campaign in certain “battleground states” because those are the states that are more proportionally split. This leads to the disregard of importance for many states on the campaign trail.
Unpledged electors have also sparked controversy with the idea of the Electoral College, as some electors have gone against their pledges to vote for other candidates last minute. The most recent instance of this came in the 2016 presidential election, when seven electors (five for Clinton and two for Trump) went against their promise and voted for separate candidates such as democratic nominee Bernie Sanders. Although no election has ever been determined by a faithless elector, it only adds to the problems with the Electoral College in the first place.
Consequently, over the last two centuries there have been 700 proposals introduced to Congress regarding the abolishment or revision of the Electoral College. All of these proposals have the common goal in addressing the factors of which a candidate is granted the presidency without the majority of votes. One of the most popular and arguably most probable proposals is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. According to National Geographic, the compact is an agreement among states to award all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide. As of October 2020, the agreement has been enacted by 15 states and needs an additional 74 electoral votes to come into effect. This agreement would act as a step in the right direction for change in our voting system, as there would be a substantial increase in the effects the popular vote has on the outcome of elections.
All this information only goes to show that it is not 1800 anymore. Political campaigning is very much a thing and in a world so heavily dependent on technology, there is no shortage of information available to voters. The Electoral College has proven durable but not without controversy. It needs to either be changed to support the popular vote, or replaced entirely.