The Electoral College: Failed Experiment or Trusted Blueprint?
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By Glynn Cosker
Managing Editor, In Homeland Security
President Samuel Tilden – elected 1876; President Al Gore – elected 2000; President Hillary Clinton – elected 2016. Without the Electoral College deciding who wins U.S. general elections, the preceding information would have been true.
However, of course, the truth is that President Rutherford B. Hayes was elected in 1876, President George W. Bush was elected in 2000 and President Donald J. Trump was elected in 2016. Tilden, Gore and Clinton each received a larger share of the popular vote than their opponents in their respective election campaigns, but each candidate lost the electoral vote – a scenario that has happened two other times in U.S. history – in 1824 and 1888.
“I can retire to public life with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people, without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office,” stated Tilden after losing the 1876 election. If the popular vote winner loses in the 2020 election, the defeated candidate may not offer up such a gracious sentiment.
The nationwide popular vote does not decide who wins a general election in the United States; the Electoral College vote does. Article Two, Section One of the U.S. Constitution outlines that presidential elections are decided by using a system of electors from each state, i.e., “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.”
New Calls to Abolish The Electoral College
There are new rallying cries to get rid of the Electoral College – which would take an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Joshua Spivak of the Washington Post recently called the College a “relic of the 18th century that failed in some of its most important intended purposes.”
Additionally, Democrats in the U.S. Senate, led by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) – and with support from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) – introduced a constitutional amendment on April 2 to do away with the Electoral College. The legislation has zero chance of going anywhere; a constitutional amendment needs the support of two-thirds of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, along with ratification from three-fourths of the states.
So, why all the current noise about abolishing the Electoral College system?
For background, every American citizen who votes in a presidential election is not really voting for a candidate; rather, he or she is voting for a panel of “electors” who have already pledged to vote for a specific presidential ticket (i.e., the man or woman running for president and vice president respectively). Unlike in a majority of democratic nations, instead of just adding up the total number of votes cast across the entire country after a general election and then announcing a winner, votes are tallied on a state-by-state basis. The popular vote winner in each state is given all the electoral votes of that state and the candidate with the most electoral votes wins the election. Only Maine and Nebraska do not abide by the winner-take-all format, dividing electoral votes among the candidates.
Critics of the Electoral College claim that it is archaic and often point to inherent problems with the system, the biggest of which obviously involves a situation like Tilden’s, Gore’s and Clinton’s. Here is the breakdown of those three particular elections:
Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican): 185 electoral votes; 21 states carried; 47.9 percent of the popular vote.
Samuel J. Tilden (Democrat): 184 electoral votes; 17 states carried; 50.9 percent of the popular vote.
George W. Bush (Republican): 271 electoral votes; 30 states carried; 47.9 percent of the popular vote.
Al Gore (Democrat): 266 electoral votes; 20 states (and D.C.) carried; 48.4 percent of the popular vote.
Donald Trump (Republican): 304 electoral votes; 30 states carried (and one of Maine’s congressional districts); 46.1 percent of the popular vote Hillary Clinton (Democrat): 227 electoral votes; 20 states (and D.C.) carried; 48.2 percent of the popular vote.
The percentage by which Tilden, Gore and Clinton each won the national popular vote in their respective elections was tiny, and it effectively erased arguments that the eventual victors would make poor presidents. Put another way, in the eyes of the American voting population, every major candidate in 1876, 2000 and 2016 was more or less equal and within the margin of error of polls (including the ballot box).
A major concern of critics of the Electoral College is the problem of unequal voting power depending on where a person resides. Many people believe that the system favors smaller states because the overall voting power is disproportionate. For example, Wyoming has a population of 577,737 and three electoral votes, while Texas has a population of 28.7 million and 38 electoral votes.
Critics argue that the individual’s vote in Wyoming counts almost four times as much in the Electoral College as each individual’s vote in Texas because when one divides the population by electoral votes, one finds that Wyoming has one “elector” for every 192,579 people and Texas has one “elector” for every 755,263 people. This, however, is a weak argument because this particular scenario has more to do with individual rights rather than electoral law. Giving more electoral votes to Texas to match Wyoming’s proportion per person would have no effect on the outcome of a general election.
Third Party ‘Spoilers’
The Electoral College system also faces criticism because it is possible to elect a president who wins the popular vote count and the electoral vote count, but does not capture a majority of the nation’s total popular vote. This has happened 18 times in U.S. history. For example, the 1992 election between Democrat Bill Clinton and incumbent Republican President George H. W. Bush. Clinton won the election via an electoral vote majority while only tallying 42.9 percent of the nationwide popular vote (Bush had 37.1 percent and a third candidate – H. Ross Perot – took 18.8 percent). So, in 1992, around 57 percent of the United States’ population voted for someone other than the person elected president. This scenario, according to critics, illustrates another big reason why the Electoral College does not work – it elects “minority presidents.” Below is a list of minority presidents – note that it includes Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy.
|1824||John Q. Adams (DR*)||31.8||29.8|
|1844||James K. Polk (D)||61.8||49.3|
|1848||Zachary Taylor (Whig)||56.2||47.3|
|1856||James Buchanan (D)||58.7||45.3|
|1860||Abraham Lincoln (R)||59.4||39.9|
|1876||Rutherford B. Hayes (R)||50.1||47.9|
|1880||James A. Garfield (R)||57.9||48.3|
|1884||Grover Cleveland (D)||54.6||48.8|
|1888||Benjamin Harrison (R)||58.1||47.8|
|1892||Grover Cleveland (D)||62.4||46.0|
|1912||Woodrow Wilson (D)||81.9||41.8|
|1916||Woodrow Wilson (D)||52.1||49.3|
|1948||Harry S. Truman (D)||57.1||49.5|
|1960||John F. Kennedy (D)||56.4||49.7|
|1968||Richard M. Nixon (R)||56.1||43.4|
|1992||William J. Clinton (D)||68.8||43.0|
|1996||William J. Clinton (D)||70.4||49.0|
|2000||George W. Bush (R)||50.3||47.8|
Any third candidate – like Perot in 1992 (and 1996) and Ralph Nader in 2000 – is seen as a “spoiler” who takes the election away from the person who would have almost certainly won had there not been a third candidate to choose from. Without Perot running in 1992, George H. W. Bush would have probably won the election, and without Nader running in 2000, Al Gore would have definitely won that year.
However, these arguments are also weak. If a noncontroversial viable third candidate had the backing and money to compete nationally alongside the Democratic and Republican candidates, and occupied a centrist position rather than a far-right conservative or far-left liberal stance, then it’s completely possible for an independent third (or even fourth) candidate to be elected president under the current Electoral College system. Perot was not suitable for the presidency, nor was Nader.
Electoral College: Power To The States
The country’s Founding Fathers sought a representative type of government and that is why they had the wisdom and foresight to create the Electoral College system. It’s a system that has wobbled a little over the centuries, but it is still the prevalent law of the land. The prowess and success of our federal system has always relied upon power-sharing among each of the three branches of government.
With distinctive roles in place to help counteract the powers of the other branches of government, the Electoral College has always been a vital component of this process. Overturning the Electoral College would obliterate a major component of Federalism in the United States. The Electoral College gives more power to the states and less power to the centralized government and reflects the wishes of our Founding Fathers. Keeping the system intact is the prudent option because it works effectively on several levels.
First, the Electoral College benefits rural populations and not just urban hubs where most of the nation’s voters reside. Presidential candidates must therefore take into account the rural and sparsely populated areas of a state and not just its major cities. For example, if winning the presidency meant just focusing on Ohio’s major metropolitan regions (Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati) then it’s likely that the Democratic candidate would win Ohio in every general election in the coming decades (unless there is a major change in demographics and policies) because rural voters (traditionally Republican) would stay at home on Election Day. With the current system, those same rural voters know that their vote (and not their urban counterparts) can make a certain candidate win or lose the state.
The 2000 election is a good example of how a small state had a major effect on the presidential results. The tiny state of New Hampshire and its four electoral votes went to George W. Bush – the only state in New England to vote for Bush. Bush knew that New Hampshire was a “swing” state, so he targeted it during his campaign. Had Gore won New Hampshire that year, he would have also won the presidency. Effectively, the Electoral College ensures that no president is ever selected either through the magnitude of one heavily populated region over the others or by the dominance of large metropolitan cities over the rural counties and smaller states.
2016 Election and the Electoral College
Without the Electoral College system in place, each candidate in the 2016 election would have had little or no incentive to create a comprehensive, large-scale campaign incorporating rallies in each state. Instead, because each candidate would see the election as a national popularity contest, Clinton and Trump could mostly have stayed home and used targeted advertising, social media and TV appearances to get the word out.
Clinton would have focused all of her efforts on the largest cities with high Democratic population in the country (e.g., San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, Cleveland, etc.) in an effort to make sure that every single eligible voter went to the polls on Election Day. Conversely, Trump would have focused all of his energy on the largest cities in the country with high Republican populations (e.g., Colorado Springs, Jacksonville (Florida), Oklahoma City, etc.) to make sure that every single eligible voter in those cities also went to the polls on Election Day. Left out of the equation – and feeling disenfranchised – would be the rest of the country.
Our Founding Fathers created the Electoral College system as a means to ensure that the states play a major role in electing presidents. The Electoral College has successfully elected 45 presidents since 1789 with only rare occurrences of controversy.
Despite detractors and many groups lobbying to get rid of the system, the Electoral College remains the best format for deciding U.S. general election results.