Thousands of Americans across the country are demanding reform of the Electoral College after the results of last month’s election, claiming that it was “unfair” and “rigged.” To understand why these accusations are being made, one must first know the history of the Electoral College and how it works.
The Electoral College is a method unique to the United States by which the president is elected. It was established in the U.S. Constitution by Article II, Section 1, Clause 2. It was later modified by the 12th and 23rd Amendments. The Electoral College is composed of 538 members. The number of electors in each state is based on its number of congressional delegates (for example, Wisconsin has eight representatives and two senators, therefore it has 10 electors in the Electoral College).
In all states except for Maine and Nebraska, electoral votes are allocated to a candidate using the winner-take-all system. Essentially, whichever candidate wins the plurality of votes within a certain state gets all of that state’s electoral votes. For example, in Florida, Donald Trump won 49.1 percent of the votes, while Hillary Clinton won 47.8 percent, and third-party Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson won 2.2 percent. Because Trump won the popular vote in Florida, he received all 29 electoral votes from that state.
In Maine and Nebraska, candidates are awarded one electoral vote for each congressional district they win. The winner of the state’s popular vote receives two additional electoral votes as a reward. Maine has four electoral votes, while Nebraska has five. In the recent election, Clinton received three electoral votes in Maine while Trump only received one. Each candidate won a congressional district, but Clinton won the popular vote. In Nebraska, Trump won all congressional districts and the popular vote, so he received all five electoral votes. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to become president.
Why do we have the Electoral College? The Founding Fathers designed this system as a “check” on the people. At the time, the Founding Fathers felt that giving the vote directly to the people could be risky. The purpose of the Electoral College was to give the political elites a final say in the matter. Over time, however, it has been informally changed so that electors faithfully vote based on how their state voted. Electors are not technically bound by the Electoral College to do so, and this is not what the Founding Fathers intended for them to do.
Nowadays, 29 states have implemented laws to prevent electors from voting against what their state has voted, which is called a “faithless elector.” There have been faithless electors in the past, but very rarely. Thus far, a faithless elector has never changed the outcome of an election.
Is it time for a reform of the Electoral College? Many people have thought so for a while, and it is a very controversial issue. So why hasn’t this happened? In order to get rid of the Electoral College, we would have to amend the Constitution. Creating amendments is a long, difficult process that would require lots of bipartisan lawmaking (which, as we know, does not happen easily). There are also benefits to the Electoral College. As of now, smaller states are allowed more influence because the candidates have an incentive to campaign there, versus focusing on populous states with big cities.
Some alternate options to replace or change the Electoral College are to elect presidents by popular vote, national bonus, congressional districts, or proportional allocation. If the president were to be elected by popular vote, whichever candidate gets the most votes nationwide wins the presidency. If done by national bonus, the Electoral College would be kept in place, but the winner of the popular vote would receive an extra 102 electoral votes as a reward. As stated earlier, using congressional districts means electoral votes are allocated to candidates based on how many districts they win in a state. Using proportional allocation, each state’s electoral votes would be divided among the candidates based on the percentage of votes each received in that state. This is done in a lot of European countries.
What are the downsides to these alternative methods? Changing the Electoral College would allow large states to receive more attention than small ones, since they are more populated. Big states, with large media markets, would dominate the campaigns. This would change the style of campaigning, leading candidates to focus more on mass marketing in urban areas than on campaigning in rural communities.
However, there are still plenty of issues with the Electoral College. One problem is that a person’s vote can seem “wasted.” Relying on the popular vote across the nation would mean that your vote would be equal to everyone else’s. Since the Electoral College uses a winner-take-all system by state, if someone voted for Trump in California, their vote basically went to Clinton because she won the popular vote in that state, thereby receiving all 55 electoral votes.
This leads to another issue: a candidate can win the popular vote of the nation but not receive the most Electoral College votes. This happened in this year’s election (Clinton: 61,039,676, Trump: 60,371,193), and the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The Electoral College also causes presidential candidates to have no reason to pay attention to states that are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind, thereby giving all of their attention to about 15 “battleground states,” which tend to include Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
In the wake of this year’s election, is it time for a change in the way the United States chooses its presidents? What do you think?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.