The Electoral College: An Archaic Tradition

The people do not elect the president of the United States.

This statement would likely spark outrage in most Americans but for better or for worse, it is true. The people do not elect the president.

Well then, who does?

The answer to this question came to the forefront of American political discourse after the 2000 presidential election, when George W. Bush received fewer votes than Al Gore yet won the presidency. The Electoral College, not the people, elects the president. It is my position that this institution, the Electoral College, despite its usefulness in the early 1800s, is an archaic tradition that has no place in the contemporary American political system.

The Electoral College consists of 538 electors, as many electors as members of Congress, plus three for Washington, DC. Representation in the Electoral College is also based on representation in Congress. Missouri, for example, with its two senators and eight representatives, receives 10 electors in the Electoral College. However, the similarity to Congress ends there. Members of Congress are elected directly by the people, whereas electors are appointed, often by the political party leadership of the state.

This system was not specified by the Constitution, as is often thought. In addition to general incoherence, the electoral method outlined in Article II of the Constitution included a system in which the likely result was a president from one political party, and the vice president from another. This famously occurred in 1796 when the president was John Adams and the vice president was Thomas Jefferson. To say that these two men were on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum would be to downplay their differences, and understandably, governing under this regime was extremely difficult. Thus, in 1804 three-fourths of the states ratified the 12th amendment, creating the aforementioned electoral system.

I do not contend that this system of the Electoral College is illogical or that it was ill intentioned, simply that in contemporary politics, its supposed benefits no longer exist. The reasons for an indirect election were clear in the 1800s. For example, James Madison was worried that a popular vote would result in “factions” that would marginalize the rights of the minority. However, these “factions” exist irrespective of the electoral system in the United States in the form of political parties. Furthermore, the country’s founders, specifically Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper No. 68, assumed “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” The current election, in which two leading candidates, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, hold no political experience whatsoever, has made it abundantly clear that the Electoral College has failed in ensuring qualified candidates. In the 1800s it was also considered critically important to differentiate between the several states, as the division between states was more pronounced. However, the identity of Americans has become decreasingly associated with state citizenship, so this distinction is no longer necessary.

To the founders, the most important goal of the Electoral College was to decrease the tyranny of the majority. This is a noble goal, but it is unclear how the Electoral College can claim to have accomplished it. Elections in several states are still pure popular elections in which tyranny of the majority could theoretically happen. Furthermore, the importance of those several states which are relevant come election time, so-called “swing” states, has tyrannized those states whose political affiliations are far more defined, “safe” states. This argument is so common it is nearly a cliché. However, the general logic is as follows: “safe” states don’t matter during presidential elections, thus the voter turnout in those states is lower, and the preferences of those states’ citizens are not adequately represented. To me, this is a massive problem for our democratic system. Nonetheless, some hold that certain states having substantially less electoral power than others is acceptable, perhaps even desirable, because the important states change over time. This very well may be the case; however, it is still unacceptable that at any time, a liberal democracy such as the United States would allow some of its people to be voiceless. The Electoral College had the boldest of goals, but on balance these goals have not been realized.

The negative effects of the Electoral College are numerous and much has been said on them already. I will briefly summarize these many problems. First, there is the possibility of faithless electors. These are members of the Electoral College who do not pledge their vote to their party’s candidate. The possibility of this is an important component of the Electoral College, which operates under the assumption that the electors could somehow understand the preferences of the people better than the people themselves. Disregarding this premise as absurd, there have been 157 faithless electors in United States history. These faithless electors have never swung an election, but the possibility remains nonetheless, and they hold no substantive benefit. Furthermore, some votes count more than others. Because of the three electors per state minimum, small states have disproportionately more electors than large states. For example, one vote in Wyoming is worth four votes in California. Moreover, it is theoretically possible to win the presidency with 51 percent of the vote in the states with the most disproportionately large electoral power, and a mere 22 percent of the total popular vote. Under no conception of democracy can such a system be considered fair.

I advocate for a popular election of the highest executive, because it is in general a better representation of the will of the people, and lacks the many problems associated with the Electoral College. There are legitimate contemporary arguments against a popular election, but these arguments are subordinate to its many benefits.

A popular election has the effect of increasing the likelihood and effectiveness of voter fraud by increasing the importance of every vote and decreasing any counterbalances to voter fraud by greatly expanding the scope of the election. Under the Electoral College, there is little incentive to commit voter fraud because the majority of votes do not matter. If voter fraud were to occur in one of the few relevant states, a recount would be easy compared to one on the national level. Voter fraud is a legitimate potential issue; however, as a nation we must prioritize additional resources to ensure elections are free of fraud so that the voices of all voters can be heard. Additional anti-fraud legislation, perhaps similar to voter ID laws, may be necessary to combat this potential fraud.

Furthermore, many argue that a popular election will decrease the legitimacy of the president-elect. For example, in the 2012 election, Barack Obama won only 51.1 percent of the popular vote but 61.7 percent of the Electoral College. This increased percentage of electoral votes gave the newly elected president much needed legitimacy that made the transition process smoother. However, the disenfranchisement felt by the majority of citizens who reside in “safe” states far outweighs the relatively insubstantial increase in legitimacy from a perceived landslide victory.

Additionally, the Electoral College promotes a two party system. Many things can be said about such a system, but it is undeniable that it is stable. Nonetheless, the possibility to end the gridlock of our political system and the increased representation of third party candidates and ideals, in this stage of American history, far outweighs the marginal increase in stability.

It has been sufficiently established that the Electoral College is a system riddled with issues. Why, then, is a popular election superior? To me, the most important reason is that a popular vote would give every citizen a voice. My home state, Maryland is almost completely irrelevant during presidential elections. In the 2012 election, Maryland received zero official campaign stops, whereas neighboring Virginia received thirty-six. A popular vote would make the votes of citizens of Maryland, and the other thirty-eight states that received zero campaign visits in 2012, as relevant as every other. Moreover, a popular vote would increase the likelihood of a successful third party candidacy. According to a Gallup poll, a record 42 percent of Americans identify as independents. In every state except for two, electoral votes are awarded in the “winner-take-all” manner, meaning that the candidate who wins 51 percent of the votes receives all of the electors. This logically results in a two party system. A popularly elected president allows third party representation to become feasible. It is true that this could result in no candidate winning the majority of the votes, in which case some additional mechanism, such as a runoff election, may be necessary. The specifics of such a mechanism should be no reason to reject a popular vote, because a fairer system can no doubt be achieved. Furthermore, it is possible that a president from a third party and a Congress controlled by a major party would result in gridlock. However, on the assumption that the third party president and the party of power in congress agree on some issues, as opposed to a president and Congress of different major parties, gridlock would likely be substantially reduced in comparison to current political inactivity.

All of this is not to say that the Electoral College was always a bad idea. In fact, I mean to argue that in the 1800s it was an excellent compromise and a brilliant idea. I simply argue that in modern American politics, because of circumstances unforeseeable to the founders, the Electoral College is an archaic tradition and a popular vote is superior.

Jack Ploshnick

Jack is a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at j.ploshnick@wustl.edu.

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