An Electoral College is a body of electors; especially : one that elects the President and Vice President of the United States. In the US, we are all guaranteed one vote per person so that we all have an equal voice in electing the people who serve in local, state, and national governments. Every four years, the people of the United States go to polling places around the country in November and vote for the people they want to be President and Vice President.

Right? Actually, they don't. Instead, they vote for people called electors who come together in Washington in December and cast their votes for these offices. There are 538 electors, and theirs are the only votes that count. Together, they are known as the Electoral College.

If you add the number of representatives each state has, which is determined by population, to the number of Senators, two each, you get the number of electors. For example, California, which has the most people of any state, has 52 Representatives and 2 Senators, so they get 54 electors. Wyoming, which has the fewest people, has only 1 representative and 2 senators, so they get 3 electors. If you add the 3 from the District of Columbia, you get 538 total. Anyone who wins at least half of these votes plus one, or 270 votes, is elected President.

Clear and present dangers.

In 1823 Thomas Jefferson denounced the Electoral College as “the most dangerous blot on our Constitution.” When America was a newborn country under the US Constitution one of various problems facing the founding fathers was that of how to elect a president. America was a nation that was composed of states suspicious of any central government, spread across thousands of miles with little connection between them, many believed that any political party was evil, and that people should not have to campaign for office; rather the office should seek them (FEC). Their answer to this proposed dilemma was the creation of a College of Electors. In this college each state would have the number of representatives in the Senate along with the amount of representatives the state has in the House of Representatives. Over the years this system of choosing a president has faced criticism after many controversial elections. Most recently the 2000 presidential election has caused problems with the Electoral College to flare up again.

Is the Electoral College hurting democracy?

Over the centuries the Electoral College seems to have gone with the opinions of the public, but there have been a few anomalies. In 1800 the electors gave Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr the same number of votes, the House of Representatives then settled the dispute as outlined in the Constitution. The relativity of this case is that it was the first to show a flaw of the Electoral College and prompted the creation of the 12th amendment. In the election of 1824 there were four strong contenders for the presidency. None of the candidates received the required majority of electoral votes in order to become president. Thus, once again, the decision was left to the House of Representatives who elected John Quincy Adams even though Andrew Jackson had the majority of the popular vote, this being the first time that a candidate who received the popular majority failed to be elected president.

Tippecanoe and Tyler, too

In 1836 the Whig party attempted to exploit the workings of the Electoral College by sending several different candidates around the country according to regional appeal. The purpose of this strategy was to get the majority of the electoral votes for the party rather than a single candidate and then use the votes to choose the candidate they wanted for president. Although this strategy did not work, it does bring up concerns about how this flaw of the Electoral College can affect the fairness of the presidential election. In 1872 presidential candidate Horace Greeley ran against Ulysses S. Grant but died before the Electoral College convened. Greeley’s 86 votes where left to be divided among the four minor candidates. Although it did not affect the election results, the Electoral College “seriously skewed history, because Grant is credited with crushing Greeley 286-0”(CTD 2000). In 1888 Benjamin Harrison lost in the popular vote but was still elected over the popular candidate Grover Cleveland. However, Harrison had managed a slim majority in a multiple large states, letting him win by electoral votes.

In the previous century there have been a few elections that, had a small group of voters changed their votes, a minority president would have been elected. For example, in the 1976 election if just 5,548 voters in Ohio and 3,686 voters in Hawaii had voted for Gerald Ford instead of Jimmy Carter, Ford would have been elected even though he was behind Carter in the popular vote by 1.6 million ballots.

"I'm sorry I ever invented the Electoral College."
- Al Gore

Along with all of the previously stated problems, in the last century there have been 3 minority presidents elected consisting of: Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and most recently George W. Bush. The most recent problem with the Electoral College was the 2000 presidential election. Bush won the electoral votes of Florida by an amount of 537 votes out of 6 million, thus giving him the needed votes of 271 to become president. Despite the fact that Al Gore had the majority of the popular vote George W. Bush was still elected president.

In addition to the past tribulations with the Electoral College, there are other reasons that many see as justifiable for abolishing the Electoral College. One of the most prominent arguments to remove the Electoral College is that it creates the possibility to elect a minority president. Proponents of the Electoral College argue that since a candidate requires at least 270 votes to win there is no way a candidate can win without a significant voter base. Yet this has already happened several times in the past and occurs in one of three ways: one candidate may lead in the popular vote but the other candidate has secured enough states to obtain a majority of the votes in the Electoral College, a second way is that if a third party candidate draws enough votes away from either of the two major parties so that neither receive 50% of the popular vote which has occurred 16 times before including 8 times this century, the electoral votes are split among three or more candidates and no one can achieve the majority needed , which has happened twice and attempted once; there are two ways to determine who will be elected in a situation like this. A candidate can throw his electoral votes to support one of their opponents or the House of Representatives must decide, yet both of these will result in a minority president (FEC). By creating a direct election of the candidates or having a national run off between the two candidates that received the most votes could solve each of these problems. The most significant caveat to this solution is that it’s very likely that since just nine states hold half the US population, a politician could ignore 41 states and actually win the election, promising massive entitlements for the few.

The Wild Cards

A further problem with the Electoral College is that of “Faithless Electors.” These are the electors that promise to cast their vote for the candidate of the opposite party. There is no constitutional protection against these faithless electors and only in about half the states are electors bound by rules or laws to vote for the candidate they are supposed to vote for (Sidems 2001). For example, in 1948, 1960, and 1976 individual electors cast their votes for third party candidates. If there were to be defecting electors in a close race it would worsen the crisis of confidence in the electoral system.

An additional concern about the Electoral College is that small states are over represented. In many small states the votes of the people hold much more weight than that of a voter in a big state. For instance every electoral vote in New York represents about 550,000, while South Dakota has one for every 232,000 people. To put this in perspective, one can look at the 2000 election where Bush captured 73 votes in 12 small states that had the combined population of California whereas Gore only received 54 votes by winning California itself (Sidems 2001). Moreover supporters of the Electoral College state that since it operates on a state-by-state basis, a majority of the states must support the president and that no region of the country should be able to dominate the election. However this does not seem like a particularly effective way to prevent regional domination and the Constitution already takes steps to avoid this by prohibiting the President and Vice President from living in the same states. In a system in which a majority is required would, nearly by definition, better represent the entire country (CTD 2000).

Conversely the winner-take-all system that most states tend to superimpose upon the structure tends to magnify the importance of larger state voters, thus resulting in candidates to have reason to commit disproportionate amounts of time and resources to the larger states (Goldstein, 34-36). A different problem that the winner takes all system creates is that it produces a huge obstacle for third parties to overcome since it tends to promote the two party system. It is extremely difficult for a third party candidate to ever make much of a showing in the Electoral College. If a third party where to win 25% of the popular votes, it would still be very unlikely for them to get any electoral votes. Even if the party did manage to win a few states, their support in other states would not be accurately reflected. Although proponents of the Electoral College argue that by preserving the two party system that it promotes national cohesion, but by failing to accurately reflect the national popular will and discouraging third parties or independents thereby restricts the choices available to the electorate and can never truly represent the voters (FEC).

The Electoral College also disrupts the one vote one-person system that should be the way the President is elected. The Electoral College innately violates this system through the representation of part of a population as a single electoral vote.

Support for abolishing the Electoral College continues to grow. Many organizations and parties, such as the League of Women Voters whom made a proposal on Electoral College reform to the House of Representatives and parties like the Green party support its abolition as well. There are also a slew of past and present public officials that support abolishing it such as: Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Hillary Clinton, and many others.

Toward democratic elections

If the Electoral College is abolished then how should we elect the president? There are currently several proposals of what can be used in place of the Electoral College. The one most sought after by opponents of the College is that of a direct election. In this case each party would submit one candidate and the voters would directly chose who is to become president. This would be ideal because it would implement the one vote one-person policy that is required for a true democracy. Also this would help to increase voter turn out since each and every vote would in fact count. An additional plus to this system of election would be in the case of no candidate receiving the majority of the popular vote by 40% or more, in which the two candidates that received the highest amount of votes would run in a national run-off election.

Achieving a complete abolishment of the College would require an Amendment voted for by 2/3 of each house in Congress and ratification by ¾ of the states legislatures, removing the Electoral College seems highly improbable. As a result others have proposed an added possible solution for the Electoral College and that is one of not abolishing the College but passing an amendment that would significantly change it. If these changes where to be implemented the electoral votes of a state would be divided among candidates according to their share of the popular vote within the state (Sidems 2001). This raises some complexities in distributing the proper amount of votes to each candidate because the proposal suggests a system that is already used in Maine and Nebraska where two electoral votes are given to the state’s popular vote winner and the others go to the winners in each U.S. House District. For instance if the state majority winner of Maine does well in District 1 but does poorly in District 2 the statewide winner would get 3 votes but the loser would still get one (Sidems 2001).

When our Founding Fathers constructed the Electoral College the status of America was significantly different than it is now. In the 18th century communication and travel between states was very limited and the general public was uneducated. Today interstate travel is commonplace and the public is generally better informed. Given that the Electoral College was designed to get around these now non-existent problems the College is no longer needed. What's more America was built on the right to self govern, but the Electoral College itself is an opponent of democracy and until it is abolished America shall never truly be democratic.


Abolish The Electoral College:

Adams, Christopher. Electoral College. Tucson, Arizona. (Speech presented at Flowing Wells high school 2003).

Electoral College Problems