The Electoral College: A Flawed System

Krutika Joshi, Editor-in-Chief

The Electoral College is the United States’ mode of electing the President. When we fill in our ballots, we are not voting for the candidate itself, but rather the candidate’s preferred electors. For example, when I vote for hypothetical Democratic candidate John Smith, I am casting a vote for Smith’s chosen electors, or the state’s Democratic electors. If a majority of the state votes for Smith in the general election, the Democratic electors will cast their votes for the presidential candidate, ideally Smith. All states, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, follow the winner take all system. This means that if Smith wins seven of Virginia’s electoral votes, he is awarded all 13 of them. Every state follows this process, and the candidate who wins a majority of the 538 electoral votes (270 votes) is elected President.  

When the founders of the United States were devising a system to elect into power the highest seat in the country, they were fitting criteria quite the opposite of the values we have come to espouse–they did not want every vote to count. It was also created as a compromise with slave states who did not support a popular vote and to ensure small states counted. However, the Electoral College was partly created for the precise reason of diminishing the votes of the poor and uneducated by amplifying the votes of the elite, upstanding citizens. At that time, the eligible electorate consisted of landowning white men only, and there existed no formal party system. The demographics of this electorate began changing as franchisement expanded to all white men initially, and later to every man and woman. Additionally, with the formal construction of our current two party system, the founders’ initial vision of the voting process faded and a divergent reality formed. Today, decades later, the Electoral College still endures. For so long,  we have found comfort in the idea that the electoral votes usually reflect the popular vote and the final outcome aligns both. However, the past election of 2016, among others, ended otherwise, and its catastrophic consequences should motivate a reevaluation of the system we have hitherto tolerated. 

There are many problems with this system as it currently stands. First, a candidate who loses the popular vote can still win the presidency. Secondly, since so many states consistently vote with one party, the election is largely determined by a select few swing states. Finally, it distorts the idea that each person is worth one vote, as small states are significantly overrepresented. 

It is not often that an elected president loses the popular vote, but it has happened five times in the past. Most recently, Donald Trump won the presidency despite his opponent winning 2.8 million ballots more than him. This is the foremost flaw with the system. A president who did not win the plurality of the vote cannot truly be considered a Democratically elected president. Of course, there are complexities to counting votes and other issues with a simple popular vote. However, when a president loses the vote by as many as 2.8 million ballots, there is a clear problem– one of many.

A foundational feature of the Electoral College is its winner-take-all system. Thus, in states such as California, which is dominated by Democrats, or Oklahoma, which always votes Republican, the electoral outcome is close to guaranteed. Knowing this, candidates focus nearly 100% of their attention to the states that are NOT guaranteed–swing states such as Pennsylvania or Florida. This lack of campaigning in many states prevents essential voter education and unfairly neglects a majority of the country. Furthermore, it leads to the distortion of policy priorities. Candidates emphasize issues that cater to the swing state in question (ex. coal mining in Pennsylvania or auto workers in Michigan) rather than speaking on points that concern the country as a whole, such as immigration or health care. And finally, this winner takes all system renders many votes wasteful. It doesn’t matter if a candidate wins a state by 25% or 2%–they still win all the votes, making the counter votes moot. This is my strongest qualm with the Electoral College: It perpetuates voter suppression. 

As I initially mentioned, one of the reasons the founders settled on the Electoral College was because they feared that small states’ votes would be overpowered by those of the larger states–a worry that still exists. Thus, when determining how many electors each state could hold, they built in a small state bias by giving each state two votes (for senators) as a baseline. Beyond that, each Congressional district or members received one electoral vote. For example, Virginia has two senators and 11 representatives, culminating in 13 electoral votes for the state. So in addition to the wasted votes from the winner-take-all system, votes from larger states are actually less worthy than the overrepresented small states. According to Vox, “4 percent of the country’s population in the smallest states end up being allotted 8 percent of Electoral College votes.” Suffice to say that the founders had little reason to fear for the small states. 

There are many arguments made in favor of the Electoral College. For one, some appreciate that it ensures a clear end result: Whoever wins a majority of the electoral votes wins the election. It also creates the image that the elected official is America’s choice. And indeed, when statistics show that Donald Trump won approximately 57% of electoral votes, it sounds like he was America’s choice. However, we know that this is false not only because he lost the popular vote by large, but also because of our neighbors, friends, and family who wanted to vote, just not for Clinton. Citizens refrain from voting for the third party candidate who they prefer because they know their vote will be lost amongst the blue and red ones. The Electoral College presents “clear” results that veil these entrapments of the two party system. 

The aforementioned flaws in the system are not all encompassing. There are many additional weaknesses including the tie breaking procedure that entrusts the House of Representatives with the final say, and unbound or faithless electors who are not legally compelled to vote in line with their constituents. For the sake of brevity, I refrained from explaining these compounding defects, but the conclusion remains that such a system that obscures many citizens’ vote is inherently undemocratic. Whether it be by a complete abolishment or amendments, the system needs reform. And if the Democrats acquire a majority in the Senate, this ideal might be less distant. I truly believe that in rebuilding our presidential electoral process, our country will find a more optimal democracy.