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America's Unique and Controversial Electoral College

America's Unique and Controversial Electoral College

by V. Lance Tarrance
Chart: data points are described in article

Every four years, Americans choose their next president using a unique -- if not controversial and even arcane -- system called the Electoral College. "Electors" are chosen to represent their state's voters and, about one month later, officially confirm the winner through a mostly symbolic vote. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. The U.S. system is the only current example in the world in which a head of state of a democracy is elected so indirectly.

Every four years, people ask, "What is the Electoral College?" and "Why does the U.S. have such an odd selection system?" and "Can it be replaced with something more straightforward?"

In response to the latter question, Americans say yes. A majority (53%) first told Gallup in 1948 that the Electoral College system should be discontinued. After the contested presidential election in 2000, Gallup found, again, that 61% favored replacing the Electoral College -- this time with a popular vote option.

And in 2013, Gallup asked Americans if they would vote for or against a law that would do away with the Electoral College. More than six in 10 (63%) favored such a law.

Previous research also has revealed that many Americans have limited knowledge of the Electoral College system. A Gallup post-election poll conducted during the 2000 recount found that only 30% of Americans said they understood the system "very well." Another 28% said they knew virtually nothing about the Electoral College, even though awareness after the 2000 election and the Florida recount should have been off the charts.

Founding Fathers Put Electoral College in Place

The Founding Fathers originally designed the Electoral College as an indirect hedge against a national majority having too much power over individual states. Based on their readings of historical attempts at democratic governments in Greece and Rome, the founders believed that the various states would lose much of their leverage over an unfettered executive branch -- so they created a novel system based on a direct popular election within each of the various states. They wanted an extra layer of "electors" as part of the federal system of checks and balances to prevent a radical mobocracy from gaining control of the new country.

The bottom line was to prevent an "imperial presidency" and reduce regional factions that could distort a popular vote. A direct popular election system was proposed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 but was rejected. The framers of the Constitution wanted a system not unlike the process used to select the Catholic pope, in which the College of Cardinals votes to elect a successor.

Electoral College Process Modified Over the Years

There have been several corrective adjustments over the years to help the Electoral College system keep up with the election process:

  • The 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, was the first such adjustment. It improved some wording defects, ultimately adding a runoff provision to the U.S. Constitution for circumstances in which no majority winner is selected by the Electoral College.
  • There was also a gradual move toward the selection of electors by state legislatures instead of by party caucuses. The Electoral Count Act of 1887 provided a uniform method of state elector certifications in response to the debacle of the 1876 disputed election.
  • And then there was the 1929 Permanent Apportionment Act, which locked in the number of representatives to a 435 ceiling.
  • Lastly, the 23rd Amendment in 1961 allocated to the District of Columbia three new electors to correct residents' nonvoting position in presidential elections, even though this created the possibility of a statistical tie of 269-269.

Since 1961, the Electoral College has numbered 538 electors -- 435 represent U.S. House apportionment, 100 represent the two U.S. senators from each of the 50 states, and three are the District of Columbia's electors. The majority required to win is 270, and that number is what the 2016 presidential election is all about on Nov. 8.

The number of state electors is linked to the number of members of the House of Representatives in each state, and that number is updated every 10 years by the U.S. Census (required by the U.S. Constitution). Thus, the Electoral College stays current with the congressional power of the states, decade by decade.

Criticism of the Electoral College Continues

The harshest criticism of the Electoral College system is this: In a deeply polarized electorate such as in the U.S. today, the loser of the national popular vote can win the Electoral College vote.

This has happened four times in U.S. history (1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000) out of a total of 56 presidential elections -- which means that 90% of the time, the system produces the same winner as dictated by the popular vote. Additionally, for those who worry about the need for an absolute statistical majority, winning less than 50% of the vote did not seem to impair the administrations of such presidents as Woodrow Wilson (1912, 1916), Harry Truman (1948), John F. Kennedy (1960), Richard Nixon (1968), Bill Clinton (1992, 1996) and George W. Bush (2000).

A second criticism of the Electoral College is that it can distort any presidential campaign by giving extra weight to certain small states and preventing an urban-centric election. However, this is somewhat disingenuous, as the 25 least-populated states -- half of all states -- have only 116 electoral votes, or 21% of the 538 electors of the Electoral College, while the 10 most-populated states have more than twice the power (256 electoral votes, or about 50% of all of the electors in the Electoral College).

Additionally, the 2016 presidential election may come down to a handful of swing states that seem to reflect adequate diversity across all regions and types of voter coalitions. In the East, two swing states are Pennsylvania and New Hampshire; in the Midwest, swing states include Ohio and Iowa. In the South, Florida and North Carolina are considered swing states, and in the West so are Colorado and Nevada.

Proposed alternatives to the U.S. presidential election system by those in favor of eliminating the Electoral College altogether have included a simple majority vote in the nation, a national runoff and an "interstate compact" requiring no congressional action in which the states would give their electors to the winner of the national vote rather than the winner of the within-state results.

There have been over 700 proposed constitutional amendments to change or eliminate the Electoral College, and none has ever been forwarded to the states by the U.S. Congress for ratification. The principal reason is that it takes a two-thirds vote by Congress and then a three-fourths ratification by the 50 states, meaning only 13 states need to vote against a constitutional amendment to defeat it.

The Founding Fathers thus ensured a high degree of difficulty to change the U.S. Constitution. James Madison had it right when he stated, "The great danger is that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the minority." This principle was designed to be deeply embedded in the U.S. system of checks and balances, which especially includes how the chief executive of the U.S. is chosen. Thus, despite public opinion polls that indicate strong support for eliminating the Electoral College altogether, the chances of adopting a constitutional amendment to change the system in the near future would seem to be "slim to none."


V. Lance Tarrance is a Gallup contributor.

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