What is the Electoral College: The Controversial But Necessary System That Picks Our Presidents

As the national election draws near this Tuesday, many voters have the misconception that elections are decided by the popular vote and that We the People pick our head of state. This is not technically true. There is a complicated system, laid out in the Constitution, called the Electoral College (which is not a place or a school). In this system, voters cast votes for slates of electors who in turn vote for president, usually – but not always – following the popular vote for their state.

The College was not created because the founders distrusted or doubted the intelligence of the average voter. A child of late 18th century politics, the Electoral College was a compromise made by the founders to address several problems with picking a national executive leader.

The U.S. was still very state-centric, and small states like Delaware and Rhode Island were suspicious and jealous of the large states like Virginia and New York. The Electoral College continues the Great Compromise by giving each state a voice in the election of a president equal to the numbers of representatives and senators that state has. This gives extra weight to citizens of small states, since they get the automatic 2 electoral votes from their senators. Moreover, this was a compromise with slave states, which got the advantage from this system since it gave the South more power.

The population was spread out over a sprawling coast-land, with little in the way of transportation or communications infrastructure to aid in national campaigns. Therefore, no one would know politicians outside of their own states. Electors were originally required to cast two votes, and one had to be from outside their home state. In addition, the well-educated electors would be aware of the merits and disadvantages of each candidate, more so than the general population.

Political parties were not yet present, and generally disdained, therefore making it hard for an individual to get half the country to vote for him. The Electoral College prevents pluralities (no candidate getting a full 50% of the vote) by requiring half-plus-one of the electoral votes for anyone to be elected president. The leader getting any less, or a tie, would result in the election being handed over to the Congress, as it was in 1800 and 1824.

So, should the Electoral College exist?

Do people mainly identify with their states as opposed to being “Americans?” For the most part, no. I am a Marylander, but no one – including me – really cares about that. If, when I define myself politically, I do so by party, ideology, and nation, not by the first-level administrative division that I happen to live in. There are plenty of arguments out there that the Electoral College “protects the small states,” or “protect the federal system,” to which I answer, “so what?” As one who is not a citizen of one of the “big states,” I do not care whether the people voting for my guy are from rural Alabama or downtown Chicago, Vermont or California. We are in a globalized world, and this system isn’t even thinking nationally yet.

Do people have trouble knowing the details of politicians who live far away from them? I submit one phrase: 24-hour news networks. Another phrase: Facebook. The idea that the modern United States will not know an out-of-state candidate and will just go with whoever lives closest to them is laughable. If anything, we have the opposite problem now. There is too much information (and misinformation) out there.

Do we now have established political parties to prevent pluralities? Yes, we do. No splinter candidate since this guy a century ago has ever come close to disrupting our two-party system. Even if that were to change in the future, alternatives exist, like Instant Runoff Voting, which preserve the ideal of “one man, one vote.” Besides, isn’t the argument against a plurality that a guy with less than 50% support shouldn’t be president? Isn’t that exactly what happened in 2000, 1824, 1876, and 1888 (almost 10% of our presidents) due to the Electoral College?

Other arguments include the idea that the Electoral College forces moderation. It does so because third-party candidates do not fare well in elections. Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote in 1992, but won not one single elector, since his supporters didn’t concentrate in any individual states. Since serious candidates must join entrenched parties to win electors, more extreme candidates cannot win a nomination. However, look at the other effects of a small number of entrenched parties: an ever-widening gap between the aisles, political stagnation, and parties that don’t represent the views of their individual members well. Also, counter-examples like the founding of the Republican Party and the Bull Moose Party, and the spoiler effect of Nader in 2000, how that the Electoral College does little to create stability.

Another common argument is that in a direct election, only the large cities will matter. This is not the case. Advertising cost/benefit analysis determines where candidates will campaign, and advertising costs are a function of market size, not density; it will cost the same to reach 100,000 rural voters as urban ones. It is in fact the Electoral College that makes politicians ignore certain areas and focus on others. Only swing states matter, and the majority of the country, including places like New York City, Los Angeles, my local city of Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Houston, as well as the rural Delmarva area, Alabama, and upstate New York, gets little attention.

Finally, the Electoral College is not a popular institution. If we are a country governed by popular sovereignty, this is an important point. Roughly 60% of the country has consistently preferred the popular vote to the Electoral College vote every year since 2000. This number includes over 70% of Democrats, over 60% of independent voters, and (for the first time) over half of Republicans, making it a bipartisan sentiment. Only a third of the population prefers the Electoral College. Despite this, fewer and fewer reforms to the system are proposed each year to change the system in Congress. Due to the difficulty of passing a Constitutional amendment, and the bias the amendment system has toward small states (requiring ¾ of the state legislatures to ratify), this system has survived decades of unpopularity, and that isn’t right.

It will take a huge outcry to make a Constitutional amendment to change the Electoral College viable. Maybe, with a country still sore from the 2000 presidential election debacle, the absurdity of a Romney-Biden presidency will be enough to provoke that outcry.

This doesn’t mean votes don’t count and you shouldn’t vote. Popular votes almost always determine the direction of the electors’ votes.  Just think of it less as one national election and more as 51 different state elections in which popular vote wins all.