The Electoral College

The Etownian September 29, 2016 0

At the Constitution Day panel Thursday, Sept. 22, two enterprising students posed a unique question to the panelists – should we keep the Electoral College? It was a great question, and one worth sharing with the Etownian’s readers.

Let’s be honest, the Electoral College is an antiquated system. It was enacted as a compromise among the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention, simply because no one could agree on the best way of electing the president. Keep in mind, the Electoral College went into effect before political parties were established in U.S. politics. In fact, before the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, whoever received the most electoral votes became president and whoever received the second-highest number of electoral votes became vice president. Could we possibly imagine that system existing today? We would have a Trump/Clinton or a Clinton/Trump White House in 2016. How incredibly odd. (For more, refer to the tensions in John Adams’ administration, 1797-1801).

We know that the Electoral College has real implications for presidential campaigns. Both major party candidates focus their efforts on the “swing” or “battleground” states that could plausibly turn red or blue this November. The rest are typically ignored. Don’t expect to see a lot of advertisements and campaign visits to California, New York, Texas and the like (except for the occasional fundraising event). So why not ditch the Electoral College and instead use a national popular vote?

As the great college football commentator Lee Corso might say, “not so fast.” Going with the national popular vote is certainly an option, and many states are moving in that direction thanks to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. (Google it). However, it’s important to consider the implications before doing so. Certainly, using the outcome of the national popular vote would avoid those awkward situations where a candidate receives the most votes nationally but fails to win in the Electoral College. (See the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000). But also consider how this might change the course of presidential campaigns.

Under the current electoral system, presidential candidates visit and campaign in states that might otherwise get overlooked if the candidates are just vying for the most votes on a national level – the states of New Hampshire, Iowa and Nevada come to mind (at least for the general election). One could argue that campaigning in states like these brings candidates closer to voters and makes them potentially more responsive to or understanding of their concerns. That’s an argument in favor of maintaining the Electoral College in its current configuration. Under a national popular vote system, candidates might just focus on major media markets, meaning a focus on urban voters. Or candidates might instead camp out in politically “friendly” states, like California or Texas, with the intent of increasing turnout in those states and totally ignoring sparsely populated states. Would candidates be as responsive to voters in that situation? Maybe, maybe not. It’s hard to say.

The point is this: while the current status of the Electoral College is far from perfect, there are trade-offs that we must consider when discussing alternatives like the national popular vote. Maybe there’s a way of maintaining the Electoral College while changing how electoral votes are allocated. For example, more states could do what Maine and Nebraska do—award most of their votes based upon the outcomes in each congressional district, which essentially amounts to proportional allotment of votes.

So before we criticize the Electoral College and propose a change, let’s think carefully about what that might mean for the state of presidential campaigns and candidate responsiveness to voters. If we carefully evaluate those considerations, we might come up with a better alternative, or conclude that the current system is worth keeping.


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