The Electoral College: A Compromise
In light of the 2016 Presidential Election, voters across the political spectrum have debated the usefulness of the Electoral College. The Electoral College is different from the popular vote because it awards votes to states rather than to individual voters. Functionally, this means that the candidate that wins the election need not win the most individual votes. While Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes, the Electoral College nevertheless serves as the final arbiter. Opponents of the Electoral College insist that this makes the Electoral College “undemocratic,” and therefore unfair. Others defend the Electoral College as it exists, saying that the point of the Electoral College is not to be democratic, but to increase representation for small states.
The solution, the proportional system, is to remove each state’s winner-take-all provision in the Electoral College. Instead, a state’s electors should be decided by the percentage of the popular vote within that state. For instance, if Hillary Clinton wins 62% of the vote in California, she would win roughly 62% of its electors. This means that winning a state by a fraction of a percentage point, as Donald Trump did with Michigan or Hillary Clinton did with New Hampshire, no longer disproportionately impacts the electoral college.
There are a few problems with using a nationwide popular vote for presidential elections. First, it is unworkable in practice, especially in close elections. In 2000, when the election was razor-thin in Florida, the recount took months to determine. If in a future election the popular vote is decided by a razor-thin margin, a prolonged fifty-state recount would be long and expensive.
Second, it is philosophically wrong to use a popular vote for President. As James Bovard put it, “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” History is rife with majorities oppressing minorities, be they religious, racial, geographic, or otherwise. The Electoral College gives a voice to geopolitical minorities—in this case, residents of small states. The founding fathers recognized the rights of small states, and they had no intention of creating a country ruled by pure majorities.
Finally, a national popular vote neglects rural areas. Campaigns have limited resources; it is more efficient for presidential candidates to campaign in densely populated cities rather than small-town America because their campaigns will reach more people. TV ads, billboards, visits, and other campaign expenditures have a greater impact on the total number of votes when focused in major cities rather than rural America. If the criteria for winning the election is to get as many votes as possible, there is no incentive to campaign in sparsely populated rural states; therefore, candidates can ignore the unique problems that voters in these states face. Due to their diversity, residents of different states may view national controversies in different ways, and some questions are entirely localized. The Keystone Pipeline, for instance, impacts the Dakotas differently than it impacts the coastal states. For candidates to accurately represent all Americans, they must address the entire country’s issues, not just the issues of states with high population densities.
This last problem of neglecting certain states, despite its intent, also happens in the Electoral College. The electoral college, as it exists today, does not force candidates to campaign in small states. Rather, it makes candidates spend their energy and money in swing states. Since a state like California is safely in the Democratic column, neither candidate will waste money campaigning there despite its large share of electoral votes. The same is true for deeply red states like Wyoming. The candidates spend money on swing states of all sizes—including small swing states like Nevada and New Hampshire and large swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida—to maximize the impact of their limited funds. Although the swing states do change from year to year, many states’ relevant issues are time-sensitive, but they are ignored because the Electoral College incentivizes candidates to spend their time elsewhere. The Founding Fathers did not intend for presidential candidates to spend the lion’s share of their time on just a few states. Candidates should represent all fifty states, not just the strategically relevant ones.
The proportional system is preferable to both the Electoral College and the popular vote., It gives people reason to vote outside of the Democratic or Republican parties. People who vote for third-party candidates are not wasting their votes if their votes return electoral votes for their candidates. In fact, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and Evan McMullin all would have won some electoral votes in November’s election had electoral votes been awarded proportionately rather than winner-take-all. These candidates would have won electoral votes even with the stigma that a vote for someone other than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is a wasted vote. When these candidates receive electoral votes, their ideas are included in the ongoing dialogue on national policy issues.
Additionally, it encourages voter turnout. On one hand, since candidates don’t have to win a plurality of votes in a state to earn some electoral votes, the votes from California Republicans and Kansas Democrats now matter. On the other hand, California Democrats and Kansas Republicans have a strong incentive to vote and help their chosen candidate pick up as many electors from their state as possible.
Finally, this system encourages candidates to campaign in all fifty states rather than only in states where the election will be close. Swing states already receive more national attention and funding during gubernatorial and senate elections. With a proportional allocation of electoral votes in each state, candidates can earn electoral votes from states that they don’t win. Narrowly winning a key swing state will not clinch the election, and narrowly losing a key swing state will not surrender it. Under the proportional system, if candidates only campaign in swing states, they forego the opportunity to both maximize their margins in states where they have strong voter turnout and to minimize their losses in states where they trail their opponents.
Two states already split their electoral votes in a different way: Maine and Nebraska. While these states split their electoral votes by Congressional district rather than by percent of the statewide popular vote, these two states are more relevant in American politics since they are not winner-take-all. As Nebraska split its vote in 2008 and Maine split its vote in 2016, they get more national attention, even though they are not ordinarily swing states. Using Congressional districts might work in Nebraska and Maine, but such a solution would not work as well in a state like Pennsylvania or Maryland, where gerrymandering would substantially skew the results.
The Electoral College today is not what the Founding Fathers envisioned, but replacing it with a national popular vote is not the answer. If the Electoral College simply removes its winner-take-all requirements, it preserves the central compromise of American politics, dating back to the creation of the U.S. Congress. The Electoral College is not a relic of the past. It simply needs to be updated to represent all Americans, no matter their ideology or geography.