Electoral College: Outdated, but Here to Stay

By: Karli Cozen

The recent election has brought the United States’ presidential voting system, the Electoral College, into the limelight. Through this system, each state is awarded a number of electoral votes based on its number of representatives in Congress. In all states except Maine and Nebraska, the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in that state is awarded all of the state’s electoral votes. A President then wins the election by receiving at least 270 electoral votes.

This system of voting was originally adopted out of fear. The founding fathers were worried both about “tyranny of the majority” and that citizens could be manipulated by a powerful, persuasive individual in a direct democracy. They established the Electoral College to work as a check on the population, creating an additional body to oversee the vote of the President and ensure that the President was competent.

In November’s election, Hilary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, outperformed Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, in the popular vote by almost 2.9 million people, earning 48.2% of the popular vote as opposed to Trump’s 46.1%. Yet Clinton failed to win the election, earning only 232 electoral votes, compared to Trump’s 306.

On January 20, 2017, President Trump was sworn into office, making him the fifth president to take office without winning the popular vote. Although Trump is not the first to take office without winning the popular vote, his win is arguably the biggest presidential upset of all time. Additionally, Trump lost the popular vote by the largest margin of any president who went on to win the electoral vote, a strong indicator of the deep divide in the United States’ current political climate.

Despite this upset, despite the fact that Donald Trump lost to Hilary Clinton by over 2 million votes, and despite the increase in protests and racially motivated crime since the election, the Electoral College system will likely not be amended anytime soon, though it should.

The founding fathers’ fears of “tyranny of the majority” and a manipulated popular vote have no basis in today’s day and age. Today, voters are overloaded with information about presidential candidates and party platforms – information they can choose to utilize or ignore. Information is readily available, and it is the voter’s choice whether to access and utilize such information. The population does not lack access to knowledge and resources as was the case when the Electoral College was established.

Additionally, even if citizens lack the knowledge and information to develop intelligent, well-informed opinions on a presidential candidate, the electoral college does nothing to remedy this issue. In a majority of the states, electors are legally required to vote for the nominee that wins the statewide popular vote. There is no “independent judgment” by the electors. Therefore, if the popular vote in a state is misguided and uninformed, the electoral vote will also be, and the winner of the state popular vote will take all of the electoral votes of that state. This does not protect powerful leaders from manipulating the majority, it merely harms the minority, essentially disregarding their vote in the national context because of the “winner-takes-all” approach utilized by states.

A better system would be to distribute electoral college votes proportionally based on the popular vote in each state, instead of a winner-takes-all approach, or to have a national popular vote. This would allow minority voters to have their voices heard and the national popular vote to more closely align with the presidential election results. For example, in a proportional system, if 60% of Wisconsin’s popular vote went to Donald Trump and 40% of the popular vote went to Hilary Clinton, Trump would earn 6 electoral votes and Clinton would earn 4. This would allow the minority voters in Wisconsin to still play a role in the national election, rather than being ignored through a “winner takes all” approach.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely the electoral college system will change in the near future. This system has its roots in the United States Constitution and has been around since the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Abolition of the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment.

The most likely reform lies at the state level. Currently, there is no federal law requiring states to adopt a “winner-takes-all” approach for allocating their electoral votes. Both Nebraska and Maine have adopted a different system, the district system, for allocating electoral votes based on a candidate’s share of the popular vote. More states should take note and adopt similar variations.


Suggested citation: Karli Cozen, Electoral College: Outdated, but Here to StayCornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (Mar. 26, 2017), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/electoral-college-outdated-but-here-to-stay-2/.