The U.S. Electoral College: Past, Present, and Future

Sydney Hamilton, MPA Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the media, political parties, and everyday Americans have heavily scrutinized the Electoral College. For the second time in modern memory — and the fourth time in American history — the winner of the popular vote did not win the presidency because he or she did not win the Electoral College. In other words, they won more votes overall but did not win a majority of Electoral College votes. This disconnect has brought questions about the Electoral College to the forefront of the national conscience and has caused many Americans to question the impact and necessity of the institution.

Establishment of the Electoral College

The Electoral College was established by Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. When Americans vote in the Presidential election, the voters are actually casting ballots for the electors in the Electoral College, and the electors then vote to determine the President and Vice President. In most states, the electors are bound to vote for the candidate who won the majority of votes in their state. Seventeen states, plus the District of Columbia, require their electors to vote for a pledged candidate but do not penalize so-called “faithless electors” who do not vote for their pledged candidate. Four states call for some type of penalty for faithless electors, and 11 states allow the faithless vote to be canceled, and the elector replaced. Even in states with no formal laws requiring electors to vote for the pledged candidate, longstanding norms and expectations require it. Six states have passed the Uniform Faithful Presidential Electors Act that provides for electors to pledge to vote for a candidate, and for them to be replaced with an alternate if they do not vote as pledged.

In 1804, The 12th Amendment altered Article II, Section 1, to allow electors to cast separate ballots for President and Vice President; this change was brought about in the wake of the contentious election of 1800. As anyone who has seen the musical Hamilton can tell you, in 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were running for President for the Democratic-Republican Party. John Adams and Charles Pinckney were running for the Federalists. Each elector would cast two votes, one for President and one for Vice President. Each party independently decided that one elector would cast one vote for Jefferson or Adams (depending on their party affiliation), and the other would be thrown away so Burr or Pinckney would become Vice President. The Democratic-Republicans failed to execute this plan, and Jefferson and Burr tied for first place with 73 votes apiece. Thirty-six ballots (and a scathing letter from Alexander Hamilton to his fellow Federalists to vote for Jefferson) later, Jefferson won the presidency, and the groundwork for the 12th Amendment was laid.

The figure below shows the breakdown of how many votes each state gets in the Electoral College as of 2019:

Each states’ representation is based on the preceding census; currently, the 2010 census directs the current distribution of the Electoral College. Forty-eight states award electors based on a winner-take-all system — the winner of the state overall wins all of its electors. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, use a proportional system where one elector represents each congressional district, and the candidate that wins that district wins that elector. In 2016, all of Nebraska’s electoral votes went to President Trump, and in Maine, one vote went to President Trump, and the remaining three went to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Founders’ Intent for the Electoral College

The current Electoral College system was a compromise between two schools of thought. Some founders wanted the President and Vice President to be elected through a purely popular vote-based system, while others wanted Congress to vote for the President.

The popular vote school of thought was to allow the people to vote, and their votes would be the deciding factor. America had just fought a war to avoid having decisions made for the people, but not by the people. The precedent for a popular vote had been set in New York and Massachusetts because these states had democratically-elected governors. Founders in the popular vote school wanted anyone electing the President to be free from bias, and they did not trust the Congresspeople who the members of the Congressional school of thought wanted to choose the President to be unbiased and truly think of the American people.

Members of the Congressional school of thought believed each state would simply back their own candidate for President, throwing the nation into anarchy after the end of George Washington’s administration. Washington had been wildly popular and easily won two terms, but there was no clear successor to the presidency. The Founders created the Electoral College to stop uninformed Americans from choosing the President; these men believed that ordinary citizens did not possess the knowledge or information to make informed decisions about the chief executive of the country. The Electoral College was a compromise to alleviate the issue of the states not being able to agree on a candidate because it allowed the American people to have a say.

The Congressional school of thought also helped the South: if the nation became one large constituency, the South would lose the advantage of the Three-Fifth Compromise, establishing them as a permanent minority in comparison to the population of the North. Congress ratified the Three-Fifth Compromise in 1787, which allowed states to count three-fifths of a state’s slaves in apportioning Representatives, Presidential electors, and direct taxes. This gave Southern states a substantial advantage because, on paper, the states would have huge populations, though these states did not treat slaves as members of their population in any other respect.

Impacts of the Electoral College

The Electoral College shapes elections because it forces the presidential candidates to focus their campaigning on a handful of battleground states, rather than on the whole country. These states are only “battleground” states because they are more ideologically diverse than other states. The following figure breaks down how much time candidates spend in each state, using the 2016 general election campaign season as a case study:

Figure 2: Campaign Events Per State, 2016

Compare the above figure with the figure below, which shows each state’s political ideology:

Many of the ideologically “average” states in Figure 3 — meaning, states with roughly equal populations of conservatives and liberals — are the states in Figure 2 with the highest concentration of campaign events. The states that overlap between the two figures are the ideologically “average” states with the highest populations.

The Electoral College dictates where candidates spend their money, especially when it comes to television ads. A study done by the Stanford Graduate School of Business examined the 2000 and 2004 elections to study how spending habits would have changed for both the Republican and Democratic campaigns. If a candidate believes they can win a state (for example, a Democrat considering California or a Republican considering Wyoming), they will funnel very few resources there, because as long as they win 51% of the vote in that state, they will win all of that state’s electors. The candidates then focus on states where the result of the election is unknown. The study showed that candidates would spend less money on television ads overall — they would decrease the number of ads shown in swing states, but would not substantially increase ads in other states. Candidates would have to adopt different tactics to sway voters, such as adopting more popular policy platforms.

Future of the Electoral College

The necessity of the Electoral College has been called into question after two presidential races in recent memory have been decided by the Electoral College, meaning the winner of the popular vote did not win the presidency. The Founders created the Electoral College to stop uninformed Americans from choosing the President; these men believed that common citizens did not possess the knowledge or information to make informed decisions about the chief executive of the country. To some extent, at the time, they were correct; Americans had no ability to find information about those running for office. But in the 21st century, Americans have ample resources at their fingertips in order to find the information necessary to make decisions about candidates. But though the amount of information available to average Americans has grown exponentially since the inception of the Electoral College, Americans find themselves constantly confronted by biased and unverified information. The Founders also wanted the electors to be free from bias, and ironically, political parties choose today’s electors.

The founders wanted to give a voice to states with smaller populations to involve the entire country in the presidential election. They argued that if the outcome were decided by popular vote alone, candidates would focus solely on densely populated areas, ignoring rural Americans entirely. The Electoral College has had the opposite effect because now, candidates focus only on a handful of states that are considered swing states. For example, in 2008, 2012, and 2016, the eight smallest states — which account for 40 electoral votes — only received one campaign visit total, while Wisconsin and its ten electoral votes received 40 campaign visits. This means Wisconsin received 40 times more campaign events as the eight smallest states, even though the eight smallest states have 2.4 times as many electoral votes as Wisconsin.

Some states are actively attempting to abolish the Electoral College in favor of an election decided solely by popular vote. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This bill will take effect when states possessing 270 electoral votes enact it into law. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia — for a total of 196 votes — have enacted this law already. Seventy-four electoral votes are still needed for this bill to be enacted.

No matter the outcome, the Electoral College is a system that was enacted at the founding of the United States, and it is a system that should be subjected to the same scrutiny as any other American institution. A majority of Americans — 53% of voters — believe the Electoral College should be abolished. In a democratic society, this majority of opinion should warrant a discussion on the matter at the highest levels of government.

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