This is a popular debate in the immediate aftermath of a presidential election, when we realize, once again, that electors elect our president and not the American people directly. Should we change that? Let’s think it through together:
What is the primary strength of the electoral college? It shifts power to the least populated states, so their concerns would be more important than they might otherwise be.
An individual voter in Alaska, the least populous state, has a relatively high impact on a presidential election.
- There were 356,426 votes in Alaska for President in the 2020 election.
- Alaska has 3 electoral votes (1 per 118,808 votes).
An individual voter in California, the most populous state, has a relatively small impact on a presidential election.
- There were 17,445,763 votes in California for President in the 2020 election.
- California has 55 electoral votes (1 per 317,195 votes).
An individual voter in Michigan, a state with a middling population size, has an impact similar (but slightly smaller) to a Californian.
- There were 5,535,226 votes in Michigan for President in the 2020 election. Our higher vote turnout compared to California is likely due to the fact that we were a swing state i.e. the ratio of republicans to democrats is close to parity. That causes each voter to have less impact.
- Michigan has 16 electoral votes (1 per 345,952 votes).
What are the downsides?
It seems to me that the electoral college concept, while relatively simple, is too complicated for full public understanding. Many seem not to understand it and, therefore, feel disenfranchised by it. In any liberal democracy (or federal democratic republic) the power of the government is given by the people. Therefore, it is crucial that they believe that the government reflects the will of the people and that they have a valid say about the elected officials representing them. Any barrier to that belief chips away at that. In other words, the government’s power is a direct reflection of whether the people feel that the system used to elect the officials is free, fair and just. The electoral college, because it is not clear to many, chips away at that faith.
In addition, the “winner take all” nature of the electoral college in all but two US states, has the effect of making minority party voters see their participation as completely futile. Notably, third party voters rarely see their vote reflected in even one electoral vote being awarded, at least that has been the case since the 1968 election. However, it is even more insidious than that, because minority voters in some states rarely see any electoral votes cast to their preferred candidate either.
Can you imagine being a democrat in Wyoming, where voter registrations are 70% republican versus 18% democrat? That is 3.9 times the number of Republicans to Democrats! Donald Trump won Wyoming 70% to Joe Biden 27% in 2020 (+43% / 2.6X). In Wyoming, all of the electoral votes nearly always go to a republican, why would a democrat vote? Wyoming has awarded all of its electoral votes for president to republicans in 18 of the last 20 elections. The last time they voted for a democrat was Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (56 years ago!). I wonder how many additional democrats would cast a vote for president in Wyoming if they felt that it would actually make a difference?
Alternately, can you imagine being a republican in Maryland, where voter registrations are 55% democrat versus 25% republican? That is 2.2 times the number of democrats to republicans! Joe Biden won Maryland 67% to Trump 32% (+35% / 2.1X). In Maryland, all of the electoral votes nearly always go to a democrat, why would a republican vote? Maryland has awarded all of its electoral votes to a democrat in the past eight straight elections, dating back to 1988.
How could you feel that your vote counts when all of the state’s electoral votes always go to the opposition? Since presidential elections draw the largest vote turnouts, that means that many voices may go unheard or simply feel that they are unheard.
What other impacts does this have? Well, the solidly blue or solidly red states get little attention during an election. All of the attention goes to the so-called “swing states”. That cannot help but accrue more swing state friendly campaign promises. I am lucky, because I live in a swing state (Michigan). However, this impact would not make me feel very good if I lived in solidly red or blue state.
Once a president is elected, in addition to the campaign promises made due to the extra power of swing states, it makes perfect sense to govern for those that will reelect you and your coalition / party. If a republican is elected, I would not feel that any electoral power lies in California, New York or Maryland. They will not play a role in the election success of me, my coalition or my party.
Of course, in a perfect world, politicians would not operate that way. They would govern for the benefit of all Americans as equally as possible. However, we do not live in a perfect world.
The constitution drafting project had delegations of conservatives, progressives and libertarians consider changes to the constitution. In this thought experiment, both conservatives and progressives eliminated the electoral college. It is interesting that while the two major parties rarely agree on anything, they agree that, at least within these delegations, the electoral college should be abolished. Voting age adults agree with them. In polls, approximately 65% of people believe the electoral college should be abolished.
The electoral college has a slight bias against republican presidential candidates. “Blue states” compromise 195 (36.2%) electoral votes while “red states” have 179 (33.2%) electoral votes of 538 total. Swing states have 164 electoral votes (30.5%). In the grand scheme of things, that is fairly even. Theoretically, this is the board that every presidential candidate from the two major parties starts from, and, then, they start to work on the swing states. Considering that, the popular vote was separated by approximately the same amount in this last election: Joe Biden democrat (51.3%), Donald Trump republican (46.9%) (4.4% difference).
Finally, my guess is that most voters today feel that they are American citizens first and citizens of their home state second. The electoral college gets that switched around.
Benefits of the Popular Vote
The Popular vote, on the other hand, would spread the power evenly among all US voters. Neat, clean and simple to understand.
In the popular vote, a democrat in Wyoming and a republican in Maryland would have a legitimate effect on who is elected president. They would not have to feel that their vote was futile. The same could be said for third party candidates for president.
There would be no more “swing states” and presidential candidates would be forced to visit broadly and appeal to the largest possible portion of Americans.
Downsides of the popular vote
It would leave sparsely populated states with little power in a presidential election. The unique needs of Alaskan voters would have little voting influence with the POTUS. The votes cast in 2020 for president in Alaska 356,426 of the 159,633,396 cast in the United States overall. That is only 2 tenths of one percent of the votes cast (.2%). The electoral college gives them 3 votes out of a total of 538 votes (.6%). Not a ton different (.4%), but it is something.
Meanwhile, the voting power of Californians would be quite powerful. The votes cast in 2020 for president in California 17,445,763 of the 159,633,396 cast in the United States overall. That is 10.9% of all votes cast. That is nearly 55 times the amount in Alaska. The electoral college gives them 55 votes out of a total of 538 (10.3%). Once again, not a big difference (.6%), but a difference.
It would be completely rational to ask: why would a state’s unique needs be treated differently than any other minority group, which also has their own unique needs? That is an insightful question. The difference is mostly based upon tradition and the fact that they each have their own government, which has different laws.
The Cost of Switching
The cost to abolish the electoral college would be enormous. In order for a constitutional amendment to be drafted, agreed to and ratified… it needs the votes of ⅔ of the house of representatives, ⅔ of the senate and ¾ of the states. That would make a lot of lawyers, lobbyists and politicians wealthy. Plus, it would be a distraction from many other higher priorities.
An easier option would be for all, or the vast majority, of the states to sign on to a pact to allocate their electors based on the outcome of the national election, thereby, mimicking the results of a popular vote without the difficulty of a constitutional amendment. The pact is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Currently, 15 states plus the District of Columbia (36% of the electoral votes) have signed on.
Finally, giving power is much easier than taking it away. My guess is that abolishing the electoral college would meet with a great deal of angst and disenfranchisement from states with small populations and swing states that have disproportionate power today. For that reason alone, it may be best to leave things as they are.
How do I synthesize that into one comprehensive view? Well, my view has always been slightly biased against the electoral college. I think that the popular vote would be more understandable and lead to a more solid understanding that the vote leads to a government that represents the majority of Americans.
The electoral college has only differed from the popular vote 5 times in US history, it would cost a lot of resources to abolish the electoral college and it would clearly cause concern among our least populous states. If the constitutional amendment was the only option, I think it would be best to leave the system in place, and work harder to educate Americans on the electoral college value and process.
Finally, the goldilocks solution might be to work to get all states signed up to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The popular vote would be clearly reflected in the results to ensure clear voter understanding. That is the solution that I would pursue.
Just my opinion. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
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