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The Controversy with the Electoral College

As the 2020 election cycle is upon us, the debate over the validity of the Electoral College’s representation of the people has re-emerged. In this century alone, 2 of the 3 presidents didn’t win the majority of the popular vote but won the Electoral vote, with the most recent case being President Donald Trump in 2016. Although he won the Electoral vote (and therefore the presidency), his opponent, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes. Many argue that the Electoral College is not an accurate representation of the people’s will, and some 2020 presidential candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren, have called for the system to be abolished. It is important to take a close look at the history of this institution and the consequences it bears with it, in order to figure out why this institution garners much controversy.

The Electoral College was initially established by America’s founding fathers in order to satisfy smaller states at the Constitutional Convention and to  “create a buffer between the population and the selection of a President,” as many founding fathers were terrified of the idea of a “direct democracy”- where laws and elections in America would be based on a popular vote. Currently, the Electoral College is composed of 538 “electors.” The number of electors a state gets depends on the number of members that a state has in Congress. One elector for each member in the House of Representatives and two electors for the state’s Senators. A presidential candidate must gain a majority of 270 electoral votes in order to win the presidential election.

America’s founding fathers understood that democracy in its purest form would not work. They instead created a system of checks and balances that would not allow any. These checks and balances go beyond the executive, legislative and judicial branches- it also applies to American voters. The Electoral College increases the political influence of smaller states, so big states do not monopolize campaign time. This gives both urban and rural voters similar opportunities to interact with candidates. If the Electoral College was eliminated, there would not be a balance between rural and urban voters, because presidential candidates would spend most of their campaign time in urban areas, thus dismissing the interests of rural areas in favor of urban interests. The Electoral College ensures that candidates must appeal to a wide variety of interests.


But since America’s elections are not based on a popular vote (a direct democracy), the Electoral College can “depress” voter turn out in non-swing states. 48 states have the “winner takes all rule,” meaning that the presidential candidate that receives the majority (or plurality) of the popular vote of a state gets all of the state’s electoral votes. Because of this, some states are easily predictable in which way they are going to vote. For instance, California almost always votes Democratic in presidential elections, thus residents in California who support other presidential candidates from different parties may not go out to vote, simply because they perceive themselves as the minority, and view their vote as something not enough to make an impact on their state’s Electoral votes.

Although abolishing the Electoral College would allow for independent candidates to run easier, it would undermine the two-party system, which some argue provide political stability because both parties have to generally stay moderate to appeal to a wide group of voters. When you look at the political systems in other countries, coalition governments (where multiple political parties cooperate) are always difficult to create, as shown in Israel. The formation of “coalition governments” is a time-consuming process, and takes away time from core decisions that need to be made for the nation. Sometimes, groups have to create policies to appease other policies, in order to create a functioning coalition government, rather than policies that actually benefit the country.

The Electoral College is an essential institution in upholding the cohesion and legitimacy of our democracy. Critics of the Electoral College must recognize the drastic effects that the removal of this institution will have on American politics. Not only will the destruction of the Electoral College incur social, political, and even economic instability within society, but our democracy as a whole will diminish, straying us further away from a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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