Unlike many other democratic nations, the United States does not hold direct elections for their president. Instead, the U.S. has elected its presidents through the electoral college. This has occurred for more than 200 years. When voters cast their ballot, they are actually voting for a slate of electors who have pledged their support for that candidate. The electors pledged to the candidate receiving the most votes in a particular state get to represent that state in the electoral college. In December of an election year, the winning electors gather at their state capitals to vote for the president and vice president. The electors who make up the electoral college are actually the only people who vote directly for the president.
The number of electors a state sends to the electoral college consists of that state’s U.S. Senators (always two) and its representatives (based on state population). The electoral college currently consists of 538 members – 100 senators, 435 representatives, and three electoral votes for Washington D.C. The candidate who receives the majority of electoral votes (at least 270) is elected president.
Whether or not the electoral college is the best method for electing the president has been debated for years. The major criticism has been that a candidate could receive the most votes nationwide and still lose the election. This scenario has occurred in four presidential elections. Each time, there was talk about eliminating the electoral college. Congress has even considered proposals to abolish or reform the electoral college more than 700 times.
Critics of the electoral college say that it can prevent the winner of the popular vote from being elected. They say the current system unfairly favors states with smaller populations by allocating electoral votes according to a state’s representation in Congress. As a result, the electoral college enables a candidate to win by scoring victories in many small states, without earning the most votes. This group believes that Presidential election results should be based exclusively on the national popular vote.
When the Constitution was written, several obstacles got in the way of electing a president. Voters could not distinguish between candidates based on party affiliation, because political parties did not exist yet. Candidates were also not able to conduct informative national campaigns because transportation and communication between the states was severely limited. Under these circumstances, voters would have difficulty making an informed decision.
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, three main proposals for electing the president were considered. Each proposal was deemed inadequate. These proposals were:
With the original design of the electoral college system, there were a wide variety of concerns about presidential elections. Some of these include:
More than 200 years after it was first created, the electoral college system continues to govern the way presidents are elected. Yet the role that electors play in presidential elections has changed dramatically over time. The Constitution grants the state legislatures the responsibility for choosing electors. Since 1860, every state has chosen its electors through a statewide election.
With time, voters and electors were becoming increasingly loyal to political parties. Many electors pledged to vote for candidates from a particular political party. Eventually, the political parties began nominating entire “slates” of electors for each presidential election. Over time states began listing the presidential candidates instead of the electors. In 1952, the Supreme Court ruled that electors could be required to pledge loyalty to a particular party or candidate.
In 48 states, presidential elections are winner-take-all. The winning candidate’s electors receive all of the state’s electoral votes. In Maine and Nebraska, however, the winner of the statewide election receives only two electoral votes. The other electoral votes are allocated proportionally, using the popular vote totals from each congressional district.
Critics of the electoral college claim that it tarnishes democracy by undermining the will of the people. When the electoral college nullifies the popular vote, democracy suffers. Furthermore, the electoral college over represents less-populous states giving voters in those states an unfair advantage. Under the present system, the two electoral votes that all states receive for their senators give less-populous states more electoral votes per person than larger states. The electoral college undermines a key democratic value—the notion that every citizen’s vote is equally important. Every other elected office in the United States is elected on the basis of individual votes.
By requiring presidential elections to take place on a state-by-state basis, the electoral college leaves some states out of the process. Since most states assign all of their electors to the winner of the statewide vote, candidates rarely campaign in states where one candidate has a clear edge. Only so-called swing states—states in which the presidential election is expected to be close—attract the attention of candidates.
While some call for the reform of the electoral college, some seek to abolish it altogether. People want a chance to feel that they’ve elected the president. A poll by ABC News found that 63% of Americans support a switch to a popular vote. 31% oppose such a change.
Despite increasing calls to eliminate the electoral college, many continue to support the present system. By requiring each state to hold its own presidential election, the electoral college upholds the significant American political tradition of honoring states’ rights. Every state has distinct political and cultural qualities, which would be diminished by the use of the national popular vote.
Presidential candidates might ignore states with small populations if not for the electoral college. Under the current system, candidates campaign in whichever states the election results are expected to be closest. Under a national popular vote, critics say, candidates would focus their attention on capturing areas with the most people and the most votes.
It is believed by some that the electoral college further maintains the nation’s stability by requiring that the two major political parties act in moderation. In order to succeed under the present system, candidates must seek compromises and build bipartisan coalitions. This prevents the country from undergoing radical change.
Supporters say that without the electoral college, the two-party system would collapse and create political chaos. The electoral college maintains the two-party system by allocating electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. As a result, under the current system a third-party candidate can receive 25% of the popular vote and still not win any electoral votes. Under a direct popular vote system, minor political parties could splinter the country, preventing any candidate from receiving a national majority of the vote.
Despite strong support for direct election of the president, a number of hurdles impede change. A constitutional amendment abolishing the electoral college would be difficult to enact. The Constitution is rarely amended. A constitutional amendment must either be approved by a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress, or it must be called for by two-thirds of the states. Also, at least 38 states (three-fourths) must ratify it. The less-populous states, which benefit from the electoral college, are unlikely to support any amendment that eliminates it.
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