For and Against: The electoral college should be abolished

As featured in Edition 37, available here.


By LILY MECKEL and JOE HILL

Lily Meckel argues in favour


In 2016, President Trump became the 5th President to win the Presidency, without winning the popular vote.

The US, a country that hails itself as being one of the first and oldest democracies in the world has many praiseworthy aspects to how it functions and has been a blueprint for other democracies around the world. Yet the electoral college is not an example of this. There has been a continuous debate on whether the electoral college should be abolished. I am making the case that it should be as it is undemocratic, unrepresentative, and antiquated.


Firstly, the electoral college is undemocratic. Five winners from the 58 Presidential elections in US history and two out of the last three Commander-in-Chiefs won the electoral college but lost the popular vote. This means that a minority of the population decided the election outcome, ignoring the majority opinion. The winner-takes-all approach, wherein a candidate wins either all or none of the electoral votes, disregards millions of people’s voices. It explains why voter turnout is so low since people’s votes don’t count in certain parts of the country. Professor of Sociology Doug McAdam of Stanford University has argued that political equality, the concept that everyone’s voice matters, is a pillar of democracy that the electoral college doesn’t comply with. This, in addition to the fact that the electoral college constantly reinforces a two-party system by suppressing third-party movements, proves it to be undemocratic and in need of a replacement.


Secondly, the electoral college is unrepresentative. Some states have more electoral weight or are battle- ground states that are important to win. The votes of the citizens in these states matter more. States like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Iowa are heavily fought for in elections despite only representing a small fraction of the country. Professor McAdam has also analysed the 2012 General election and found battleground states accounted for only 20% of the total population. The system gives smaller states more power in determining a president than other states with much larger populations, such as California. The electoral college is also unrepresentative as people vote for electors who vote for the president instead of directly voting for the president themselves. Usually, electors vote for the candidate their district voted for, yet there are repeated instances in history of ‘faithless’ electors, who vote for candidates who did not win their respective states. Despite the rarity of this, the concept overall makes it unrepresentative and does not give the people the direct decision to elect a president.


Lastly, the electoral college is antiquated. It was a compromise made at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 between the president being elected by congress or by popular vote. It has only been amended twice since its creation, not having adapted to a changing America. Its fundamentals have not changed, such as that it gives more power to smaller, rural areas, despite 80.7% of Americans living in urban areas today according to the US census bureau. Additionally, the number of electoral votes each state has depends on its number of representatives, and representatives are distributed based on population size. The distribution of representatives has a racist history known as the 3/5 compromise. The North thought slaves, which were legal to have in the South, should not count towards their population as they were not free citizens. Yet, the South wanted slaves to count towards their population as this would give them more representatives and influence. The result was a compromise where slaves counted as 3/5 of a person, giving the South more electoral power despite slaves not hav- ing the right to vote for them. TIME magazine states that this compromise led to slaveholding candidates winning the presidency 32 out of 36 years after the constitution was created. Whilst slavery was eventually abolished, and the civil rights movement gained African Americans the right to vote, the history and impacts of the electoral college are problematic. This old-fashioned system is rooted in slavery and racism and should be abolished to help deconstruct structural racism in the US.


These are only three of many reasons why the electoral college is flawed and should be replaced. The system has greatly impacted the trajectory of US policymaking. Think of how different America would look today if the popular vote had determined presidents: George W. Bush would not have won in 2000 and Donald Trump would have never taken office. Politicians’ opinions on abolishing the electoral college are divided along partisan lines. Yet, according to Pew Research, 58% of Americans want it to be replaced by a national popular vote. For so long, the electoral college has not listened to the majority opinion; it is time that representatives in congress do and change the system.


Joe Hill argues against


The system of electing the US president needs reform, not revolution. The urge to abolish the Electoral College is understandable – its foundations seem to be corrupted by pro-slavery sentiments; its mechanisms rely on an elite group of electors being trusted to carry out the people’s will; most unsettling of all, it can result in a candidate being elected without winning the popular vote – as with Trump in 2016 and Bush in 2000. However, while it may seem the solution to all these genuine concerns is to wipe the slate clean and consign the Electoral College to the dustbin of history, such a rash move is firstly unachievable and secondly actually undesirable.


Firstly, the Electoral College is here to stay. Changing the Constitution would prove almost impossible, especially on such a contentious issue. The closest that the Electoral College has come to abolition was in the Congress of 1969-71. Despite the proposal to shift to a French-style two-round electoral system benefitting from bipartisan support in the House and the endorsement of the incumbent President Nixon, it was filibustered by Senators concerned that this change would dramatically reduce their states’ influence and therefore see the concerns of their constituents cast aside. Even if it had passed through the Senate, the proposal would have needed the approval of 38 state legislatures – something that was very far from certain. If America had an opportunity to abolish the Electoral College, this was it.


In our age of hyper-partisanship, widespread disillusionment with the establishment and historically low levels of public trust in the government and the media, it is inconceivable to see Electoral College reform receiving bipartisan support. Crucially, the issue is now split pretty clearly down partisan lines – 89% of Democrats support abolition, while just 23% of Republicans are in favour of it. This reflects the fact that abolishing the Electoral College would heavily favour the Democrats. Therefore, it would be unfeasible to get such a controversial plan through Congress; Republican Senators would filibuster any bill that somehow managed to pass through the House, and achieving the super-majority required to circumvent such a tactic would prove even more impossible. All of these obstructions considered, it’s clear that the most pragmatic route is reform, not abolition.

The Electoral College can be reformed to address its flaws, while still retaining the advantages that the Founding Fathers intentionally codified. Proponents of abolition argue that the Electoral College grants disproportionate influence to swing states during elections, causing candidates to spend vast amounts of time and money courting a small number of voters. Here it must be remembered that the US is, by design, a constitutional republic – not a democracy. The Founding Fathers were deeply concerned that direct democracy could lead to demagoguery and mob rule. Therefore, the Constitution intended to ensure that an incoming president appeals to large swathes of the population across the US. A popular vote would see candidates focus all their attention on densely populated urban areas, to the detriment of the rest of the country. Additionally, the Electoral College has served to ensure that there is a clear winner. President Trump’s accusations of voter fraud and corruption are undermined by the fact that he decisively lost the Electoral College vote. Had he made such claims after an election that was decided by nation-wide direct democracy, the razor thin margins of victory would necessitate millions of ballots to be recounted. Abolishing the Electoral College would dangerously undermine the decisiveness, and therefore potentially the legitimacy, of elections.


However, there is precedent for adapting the Electoral College so as to allow each voter to have more influence at a local level. Each state doesn’t have to be ‘winner-takes-all’. Nebraska and Maine allocate their electoral votes using the congressional district method. This involves allocating two electoral votes to the overall state popular vote winner, and then one for each popular vote victory in each of the states’ Congressional districts. This allows for split electoral votes within the state, meaning that there are many more vote contests and ultimately that each individual vote has more relative influence. This would also alleviate the issue of city centres making rural votes irrelevant. This adaptation would create far more competition for the support of voters who would otherwise be considered politically valueless.


While we may all feel a primal urge to uproot the Electoral College, upon closer inspection it must be acknowledged that reform is the only realistic pathway to a better system. It may be broken, but it’s not beyond repair.


Image - Flickr / Maryland GovPics