In November 2020, the United States Elections were held, Joe Biden won the election with 305 Electoral College votes compared to Presidential Incumbent Donald Trump’s 232. For centuries the United States utilized the Electoral College voting system. A simple description of the system is that each state gets a certain number of electoral college votes partly based on its population and there are a total of 538 electoral votes, the winner of the election would be the candidate that wins 270 electoral votes or more. This means that the winner is determined not by who has the most votes, but is determined by the number of “points” garnered from each state. There are numerous instances wherein a candidate has the popular vote, yet lost the election due to said system, a recent example being Hilary Clinton losing to Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Elections. This system makes people question whether or not their votes truly mattered in a democratic society like the United States and whether this system, which was formed by the Founding Fathers during the 1780s, is obsolete and in need of abolishment or change.
The main rationale behind the creation of the Electoral College stemmed from the need to balance the interests between high-population and low-population states during the early years of the United States of America. According to founding father Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper Number 68, the body (Electoral College) was formed as a compromise at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia between large and small states (West, 2019). Many of the members of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia worried that large states such as Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania would dominate the presidential elections and as such, they devised a body or an institution to make sure that each state had voted in proportion to its number of Senate and House members (West, 2019). There were also some major considerations as to whether congress or the state legislatures should choose the chief executive. The delegates also had an anti-majoritarian policy in mind as there was a concern regarding that voter intelligence. In the context of the time period, the lifestyle of Americans was still rural and local, many people had not yet received education leading to politicians having little trust in the wiseness of the public’s choices. The premise of this objection was to prevent the exploitation of the lack of voter intelligence by populist candidates or policies as the Founding Fathers wanted intelligent politicians in seats of power. The main objective of the creation of the Electoral College is to minimize social havoc, disturbance, and corruption, and to rely solely on the people themselves during the president’s tenure.
In the beginning period, because of Washington’s status, the Electoral College system’s operation has been steady. However, after Washington’s reign as president, the emergence of political parties had a significant effect on the system of voters’ congregations. Ultimately, the idea for the formation of the institution was proved to be obsolete with the emergence of presidential parties wherein there was a distinction between them and present were a clear set of political beliefs, platforms, and ideologies that were made known to the masses (Amar, 2020). With the people’s willingness to participate in the election, most of the states adopted the popular election system in 1824 (Xiao 2018). The problems of the Electoral College system became even more apparent over time, as studies delved deeper into the complexities of the aforementioned system. Kaitlyn Marlowe (2020) identified three (3) major flaws in the Electoral College system as well as other minor problems that hinder the democratic process in the United States.
The first flaw in the system of the Electoral College is that the popular vote does not guarantee that a candidate is automatically elected by the Electoral College. Marlowe (2020) argues that the popular vote is the most democratic means of election because it gives citizens the opportunity to directly control an election, while the Electoral College could potentially change the outcome against the nation’s will. She also states that the Electoral College is a complex process, but complexity does not equal democracy. The United States is a democratic republic therefore the Electoral College was never designed as direct democracy. Throughout the U.S. presidential elections, there were four instances that the candidates with the lower number of popular votes won the national election and eventually became the presidents. In the years 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016, such an event did occur with the most recent case being Republican candidate Donald Trump versus Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton. More people regard Hilary as the ideal president, with her having the popular vote, but the winner-take-all system chose Trump as the victor. If the popular votes conform to the electoral votes, the design of the Electoral College can be regarded as logically self-consistent. However, this inconsistency has led to a serious and reflective question: the president of the United States is the president of the people or the president of every state? (Xiao 2018).
The second problem of the Electoral College as posited by Marlowe (2020), is that it takes away the ability of citizens to elect the presidential ticket. While most states use the popular vote, there are still issues with this form of vote. According to Marlowe (2020), the issue is that even if a candidate receives only 30% of the popular vote, if that is the plurality, then the candidate received all the votes of the state. This gives the candidate a small number of votes to win over in order to secure the win and only represents a minority in the total population of the candidate’s respective state. This means that the remaining 70% will not be represented as they did not vote for the winning candidate. The winner-takes-all system might be good in alleviating some issues in dividing the votes, it ultimately creates unequal representations for the citizens with some voices mattering more than others. This can be an issue in diverse states as the system can indirectly enforce further divisions along political and social lines among its citizens that can be detrimental to the democratic process. One of the negative results this process may produce is a leader who only represents a minority of the population.
The third flaw brought about by Marlowe (2020) is that the Electoral College favors the two-party system. There is no possibility for a third-party candidate to receive an electoral vote. The first reason for this is the plurality problem. If an independent candidate received 10% of votes in a state, they would not receive electoral votes. The second reason is that electors are chosen by the two major parties so even if a candidate were able to get the plurality of votes in a state, the faithless elector punishments are not severe enough to discourage an elector from voting for their party, even if they manage to win a large number of votes. Since electors are decided by the state and the state almost always has a Democratic or Republican-leaning, it would be virtually impossible to have an elector for a third party or independent candidate chosen to be an elector. Then if the candidate was chosen, they would be considered a faithless elector if they did not vote for the candidate that won the plurality in the state they are in. In each state, because of the winner-take-all policy, the third party can barely win the majority votes. So, it is impossible for the third party to tap the door of the White House, which hinders Political diversity (Xiao 2018).
Another problem would be regarding the candidates’ campaigning and platforms. The Electoral College causes candidates to focus on states with large populations and a large number of electoral votes; exactly what the Founding Fathers aimed to prevent in the first place through the formation of the institution. When a candidate is aware they need to win Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, they will visit those states, speak with those citizens, and even develop a platform regarding policies that will favor those states even if those same policies have negative effects on states like Vermont and Rhode Island that are small, with small populations, and lower electoral votes, these states tend to be ignored. The effect of this is very apparent in states like Wisconsin (10 electoral votes) where the majority of the population is located in a small number of large cities, while the rest of the state is sparsely populated by comparison. In constituencies like Wisconsin, candidates will focus more on major metropolitan areas and less on the more rural areas. (Froom 2014). Marlowe also argued that the potential for election results to differ between the Electoral College and the popular vote proves the undemocratic nature of the system. The U.S. functions as a democracy in state elections, but never gave citizens’ the ability to directly elect their President and Vice President. This system is also undemocratic because it allows states, like Florida during the 2000 Election, to individually determine the results of a presidential election. By prioritizing one state, in some cases, or a handful of states in others, there is a loss of democratic practice and results in lower voter turnout in some states.
A system that favors the elite or more densely-populated states is inherently bad for democracy (Marlowe, 2020). The dilemma of the Founding Fathers not being able to determine the best way to elect the president has created a temporary system meant to address the flaws present in their time period but which has ultimately run its course in today’s context. The short-sightedness of their decision is apparent in the numerous flaws in the system they created. In their defense, the Founding Fathers did not fully see their goal of transforming the United States of America into a bastion of democracy where every person is represented and involved in the country’s democratic process. One of the issues holding back the democratic process in the United States is the antiquated system of electing the chief executive which is in dire need of reform or change.
There have been many possible alternatives to the current Electoral College winner take all system. The most common solution given by abolitionists of the Electoral College is to use a direct election to determine who is elected President. Direct elections are defined as the most representative of the national will; with each vote having equal strength there is little question about who should win an election.