For and Against: The Case of The Electoral College
Updated: Mar 5
Looking back on the American presidential elections, we can conclude several things: 1. Joe Biden won the elections and will become the 46th president of the United States of America 2. Donald Trump will probably not accept the outcome for many more days, maybe even weeks or months, to come and 3. The electoral system kept us all at the edge of our seats, once again. During the counting of the votes, some friends texted me to ask about the working of the Electoral College and expressed their confusion; why do they have this system, when they can also look at the popular vote? Doesn’t that make more sense?
The Electoral College was founded in the 19th century. There are a total of 538 electoral votes throughout all the states. Each state has a number of electoral delegates, based on the same number of their Congressional representatives plus two for each Senator. So for California, that would be 55 electoral votes (53 congressional delegates + 2 senators from California), while Montana only has 3 (1 congressional delegate + 2 senators from Montana). When looking at voting on the state level, the candidate that gets the most votes (read: the popular vote) receives all of the electoral votes that the state has. The state will then send their selected ‘Electors’ to cast their electoral vote for the candidate that won the state. One of the presidential candidates has to reach a majority of 270 electoral votes in order to be elected as next president.
The Electoral College is considered to be both a confusing and controversial political system and has been opposed by both the Democrats and the Republicans for several decades now. So, why does America still have this system? Isn’t it time for a change?
There are always pros and cons to a (political) system, and the electoral college is no exception. Starting with the pros. The electoral college, as mentioned above, is based on the Congressional representatives of a state. The number of Congressional representatives that a state has, is based on the number of people that live in a state. One could therefore argue that the system rightfully reflects the number of people in a state and gives the state with bigger populations more influence. Besides that, it is also argued that the electoral college reduces the chance of a recount; the votes that are cast in state X will be counted in state X as well. After the counting, a definitive result is reached in every individual state which arguably provides clarity, rather than counting the popular vote of all the states together. Moreover, the principle of the popular vote is actually already present in this system; most states have the concept of the winner takes all. The candidate that gets the most votes in the given state, gets all the electoral votes. This number is then added to the total of electoral votes that the candidate already gained, in the battle to the 270 electoral votes in order to become the president-elect.
All of these arguments sound reasonable. This then leads us to the question of why the Electoral College has been a major point of critique for many decades. The biggest point of critique might well be the absence of influence of the popular vote; sometimes it occurs that a candidate has a majority of the popular vote, but does not have the required 270 electoral votes. So even though most of the votes were cast for this particular candidate, he or she will still lose the elections because of their minority in the electoral votes. Millions of people saw this scenario play out in the 2016 presidential elections when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote by 232 against Trump’s 306. Apart from this, many people critique the big role that the so-called ‘swing states’ play in the elections. Swing states are states that ‘swing’ from Republican to Democrat (or the other way around) throughout the presidential elections. Some states are ‘safe states’, meaning that they are ‘always’ Democrat or Republican and therefore the running candidates don’t even need to try to win them over. A big share of the electoral votes is therefore already fixed. Some argue that the influence of swing states is too big on the results of the presidential election; they basically ‘decide’ who will be the next president, given that they swing one way or another. Should the outcome of the elections really be based on these inconstant states? Another point of critique is an argument that was discussed in the pro-section above: all states get a total of two extra electoral votes, added on top of the number of congressional delegates. This, however, provides a bigger gain to the smaller states like Montana, that goes from 1 electoral vote to 3 votes, than to the bigger states like California, that goes from 53 to 55. Montana has a gain of 200%, while California only gains 3.8%. Therefore, a vote cast in a smaller state is more influential than a vote cast in a bigger state.
Taking together all of these points, it is clear that the Electoral College can be considered a flawed system that may have outgrown America. When founded, it was based on the then 13 existing colonies. Now that America has grown to a number of 50 states in total, they might have to consider a system that serves every state equally. Because in the end, they are and should be the United States of America.