As campaigns for the 2020 presidential race ramp up, candidates have once again sparked debate over our national election system, with the most recent provocateur being Elizabeth Warren. In an attempt to appeal to Democrats, she has promised to do away with the Electoral College altogether.
The Democrats suffered a stinging defeat in the 2016 presidential election, with Clinton winning the popular vote by 3 million ballots, but losing the electoral college vote. Since then, an increasing number of Democrats have called for a replacement of the electoral college vote with the popular vote. While the issue usually arises around campaign season, some Democratic candidates have been increasingly supportive of such action. However, with past elections, talk of a new voting system has never manifested any actual change. In the spirit of the election season, a moment shall be taken to observe the endless debate of whether our electoral college is fulfilling its intended purpose, or if it should be scrapped in exchange for the traditional direct democracy of the popular vote.
In order to determine whether it is functioning as intended, we must first understand what purpose our founding fathers had in mind when creating such a system. Our system was created with the intention of being a midpoint between popular election and a congressional decision. The danger that the founding fathers saw with a popular vote was that an unqualified candidate could inspire a wave of populism with false promises, and betray the people. At the same time, they also wished to give smaller states a reasonable voice in such an important decision. So in the true American fashion, they met halfway to create a system that mostly worked, but still had some pretty unsettling issues. For the basis of our evaluation, we will operate on the assumption that the popular vote would be its replacement.
One of the most commonly used arguments in support of the Electoral College is the idea that without it, highly-populated states would dominate the vote, thus marginalizing small states and rural communities as candidates would only appeal to the metropolitan areas. By having an electoral college that grants a slight boost to the voting power of small states, supporters argue that candidates are required to have transnational policies and platforms.
Operating on that same principle, but in favor of the popular vote, is the fact that because most states already have historical partisan leanings, swing states are largely the focus of campaigns. This is a similar idea to the previous one, but instead of the highly-populated states making the decision about who gets elected, it is the few swing states. An uncommon but strangely logical response to this latest argument is who is more qualified to decide? Who is elected president? The population in the swing states will be the most informed about the candidates and thus, the most reasonable voters.
The immediate thought you may have is that they sound about the same. Different states are making the same type of decisions. You would be right. This is due largely to states’ winner take-all style of counting electoral votes. With the exception of Nebraska and Maine, who have semi-proportional style electoral college seats, states have a system in which candidates only need a bare majority in order to attain the entirety of their state’s electoral college votes. This also happens to be a major criticism of the electoral college, as any vote over that bare majority essentially becomes meaningless. Californians in particular tend to favor the popular vote because they vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.
Another criticism of this is that, in many cases, a candidate will only barely achieve that majority yet attain all electoral votes, giving the impression that the state voted overwhelmingly for that candidate. In reality, it was a very close call. In states with heavy partisan leaning, those who are not of that party often feel discouraged from voting, since the winner take-all style of the electoral college will essentially ignore their vote. Supporters of the electoral college overlook this aspect, however, arguing that the technically two vote counts offer decisiveness in the election. To explain further, we will look at the theoretical scenario in which there is a very close popular vote election. If the difference in the count comes down to only a couple thousand votes, the candidate that is behind would be highly motivated to call for a recount. It is in their interest that every possible vote be counted. This process is likely to be long, as each vote is meticulously recounted. The process could take weeks and would weaken the credibility of the election. There is also an increased likelihood that votes are tampered with, like the current case in the 9th Congressional district of North Carolina.
For many, the argument over the electoral college versus the popular vote is a moral issue. The fact of the matter is that larger, more populated states have lower voting power than smaller states. As discussed previously, there is a reason for this, but historically, the United States has moved towards direct democracy. Changes to voting laws that include women and former slaves are evidence of such a claim. This being said, the attempt at complete direct democracy in the form of the popular vote contrasts sharply with the founding fathers’ fundamental desire for the United States to be a union of states, rather than a single state.
The final and most championed point of popular vote supporters is that the electoral college was created to prevent uninformed voters from being swept up in a populist movement that elects a tyrant. However, modern technology has far exceeded any of the founding fathers’ imaginations. Our access to information has become infinitely easier, allowing any voter with a will to understand the platforms and qualifications of any candidate. Even with this argument made, the fact remains that the electoral college has become a continuation of the majority decision in each state. It is almost unheard of for electoral college members to cross lines and vote for someone who did not receive the majority vote. In this respect, the electoral college is not effective in preventing the dangers imagined by the founding fathers. This can largely be seen in the recent 2016 election where a man with no political experience, a misguided moral compass and clear prejudice inspired a wave of populism and was elected.
With this in mind, anyone can see that the electoral college is flawed, but that the popular vote is not an instant fix to those issues. While some argue that in the Utilitarian sense it is morally wrong to not have direct democracy in the form of the popular vote, many understand this will only create variations of the same problems we face now. Further scrutiny of the idea to completely scrap our current voting system reveals almost identical issues in addition to a multitude of new ones. The real debate lies in how to alter the system in order to better represent our modern America.