Every four years, the Electoral College seems to always find its way into political debates, and in the aftermath of the 2016 President Election, it has led to hundreds of Internet petitions calling for its abolishment. Their reasoning? Because it’s undemocratic. When Americans vote every election, they’re not voting directly for the president. Instead, they are voting for which candidate will receive their state’s electors. In total, there are 538 electors, which are divided evenly among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, in proportion to population. Each political party selects its own group of electors, which are then sent to the capitol of each state that the party’s candidate has won. In all, 270 electoral votes are needed to win. However, this creates instances in which the winner of the national vote doesn’t always win the electoral vote. This was the case in the last election, when Donald Trump won 3 million votes less than his opponent, Hillary Clinton, yet still took the nation’s highest office by receiving 306 (out of 538) votes from the Electoral College. This marks the fifth time in American history that this has happened. And while most Americans say it’s time to move towards direct elections, it’s worthwhile to consider why the Electoral College remains relevant today.
The origins of the Electoral College traces back to the First Constitutional Convention. In fact, it is mentioned in Article II, Section I, Clause 2 of the Constitution:
Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress… (U.S. Constitution, art. 2 sec. 1).
But why do we have this system in the first place? Mainly, the founding fathers did not trust the public enough to elect its leader. They feared that Americans were too uninformed about their candidates, and too prone to manipulation, that there would need to be a mechanism to ensure that the candidate who is selected is fit for the presidency. One of the original proponents of an electoral system was Alexander Hamilton, who expresses the need for one in The Federalist Papers No. 68:
The immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station… a small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations (Hamilton).
And Hamilton was right. According to Democracy and Political Ignorance by Ilya Somin, Americans perceive their votes to be so insignificant, that there is little incentive to learn about politics. This even extends to the basic structures of government. A 2016 survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26% of Americans could name all three branches of government. 31% of respondents could not even name one. If Americans are really this unaware of the basic structures of their own government, this means that they are incapable of making well-informed choices at the ballots. This serves to reaffirm the purpose of the Electoral College as a safeguard against public ignorance.
Secondly, the Electoral College emerged as a perfect solution to protecting minority interests. Particularly, the founding fathers feared that densely-populated states such as New York would exercise enormous influence in popular elections. The Electoral College would prevent this, by assigning each state a minimum of three electors, so that small states would have a fairer advantage in presidential elections. Nevertheless, by abolishing the Electoral College, this would drastically change the way that campaigns are ran. According to Emily Schultheis of CBS News, a national popular vote would cause candidates to ditch battleground states and focus heavily on their party bases. For Democrats, this would be urban cities such as Los Angeles and New York, while Republicans would camp out in the suburban areas that surround them. However, political strategist, Hogan Gidley, suggests to Time magazine that without the Electoral College, “there'd be no reason to campaign in Middle America.” Candidates would rather spend most of their time rallying in cities, than tend to the concerns of small towns throughout Middle America. Politics will become largely urbanized, while the rest of America will go unheard.
Thirdly, the Electoral College is essential to preventing run-off elections. It assures that even in the event in which no candidate wins a popular majority (50.1%), there will still be a declared winner. This was the case in the 1992 Presidential Election. President Bill Clinton only received a plurality of the popular vote (43.01%), which was largely split between him and his two opponents, Republican candidate George H.W. Bush (37.45%) and Independent Ross Perot (18.91%). Clinton needed the Electoral College to strengthen his legitimacy, and by receiving 370 votes from the E.C., he was able to secure the presidency without a popular majority. This is important, because in the case of which two candidates were to receive a similar number of votes, this saves America from experiencing a national version of the 2000 Florida recount. Likewise, the Electoral College preserves political stablity and secures the two-party system by discouraging third parties from gaining political momentum. Without it, elections “would be swamped with candidates,” as Peter J. Wallison states, “Every group with an ideological or major policy interest would field a candidate, hoping that their candidate would win a plurality and become the president."
So, would America be ready for life without the Electoral College? Probably not. Considering the consequences that could rise in adopting a popular vote system, this shouldn’t be the way to go. The point is if the founding fathers wanted the president to be directly elected by the people, they would’ve proceed in creating a country that did so. But they didn’t, and it was for a good reason. It was to protect the nation they loved, and to assure that it’ll live as long as it remains standing. So, in end, it’s rather best to keep the Electoral College. While it’s far from being perfect, it has proved itself to be important to preserving the American republic.