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The Foley Institute Electoral College

 

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What about abolishing the Electoral College?

Monday, April 29, 2019

 Senator Brian Schatz recently introduced a joint resolution in Congress to eliminate the Electoral College.  Several Democratic presidential candidates, state legislatures, and most American voters support abolishing the Electoral College, though support for the idea varies by region and party affiliation.  How does the Electoral College function, how could it be changed, and what would it look like to eliminate it?

The Electoral College and the Constitution

The framers of the U.S. Constitution created the Electoral College, wary of the effects of direct democracy and more willing to trust the “information and discernment” of elites in each state.

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution grants each state “electors” based on the number of Representatives and Senators that represent them in Congress: 435 members in the House of Representatives, 100 members in the Senate, and three representatives from the District of Columbia, totaling 538 electoral votes.  A candidate for president must gain a majority of 270 electoral votes to be declared the winner.  If no candidate wins the necessary 270 electoral votes, the House of Representatives convenes in a “contingent election” and determines the winner with each state delegation getting one vote.  Most states require electors to vote in a bloc for the popular vote winner in that state, with Maine and Nebraska being the two exceptions.  On rare occasions, “faithless electors” vote for a candidate other than their state’s popular vote winner, though they never changed the outcome of a presidential election.

A history of controversy

Electoral College controversy began early in the nation’s history.  The 1800 election between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr resulted in an electoral vote tie, forcing the House to select the winner.  Jefferson triumphed, but Burr became his Vice President, as the electoral vote runner-up became Vice President at the time.  The 12th Amendment did away with the runner-up rule, instead requiring electors to cast one vote for the President and one vote for the Vice President.

Most controversies involving the Electoral College occurred when candidates win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College vote.  This occurred in five presidential elections: 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.  The latter two elections featured the Republican candidate—George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald J. Trump in 2016—losing the popular vote but winning the presidency over their respective Democratic opponents.  Those who support eliminating the Electoral College argue that the system unfairly advantages one party over another based on the geographical distribution of partisan voters and the disproportionate electoral influence of lower-population states like Wyoming, Alaska, and Vermont.   Opponents often make an equity-based argument: the President and Vice President are the only nationally elected officials, each person’s vote should count equally in the election, and using the popular vote outcome would be a better measure of the nation’s true preferences.

Public support and institutional obstacles

According to Pew Research Center polling data, roughly 55% of voters favor a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College.  However, an amendment would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress—or a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of all state legislatures—and ratification by three-fourths of the states.  This is unlikely to happen in the current closely polarized political environment.

An alternative way to reduce the role of the Electoral College is through the “The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact,” or NPVIC.  The NPVIC is a legally binding agreement among states to award the electoral votes from their state to the national popular vote winner, regardless of whether the majority of voters in that state preferred another candidate.  The NPVIC would only go into effect should the states in the agreement represent an electoral majority of at least 270 electoral votes.  At present, 14 states and the District of Columbia, representing 189 electoral votes, have joined the compact, with Colorado, Delaware, and New Mexico joining the Compact in 2019.

Effects of abolishing the Electoral College

Abolishing the Electoral College might change the outcome of presidential elections, especially narrowly contested ones such as 2000 and 2016.  However, it would also alter the way candidates campaign for the presidency, and how this would impact election outcomes is less clear. Currently, candidates focus on a handful of “battleground” states such as Ohio and Florida with close vote-margins and large electoral vote payouts.  Should the Electoral College be abolished, campaign attention might shift from these states to densely-populated and closely divided regions across the country.  Cities like New York, Dallas, and Seattle might become new hubs for general election activity, changing how candidates engage with voters, the issues they emphasize, and how they might govern in the future.