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By Glynn Cosker
Managing Editor, In Homeland Security
President Samuel Tilden – elected 1876; President Al Gore – elected 2000. Without the Electoral College deciding who wins U.S. general elections, the preceding information would represent true life.
However, of course, the truth is that President Rutherford Hayes was elected in 1876, while President George W. Bush was elected in 2000. “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 the 1876 election. Tilden and Gore both received a larger share of the popular vote than their opponents in their respective general election campaigns, but each candidate lost the electoral vote – and that scenario has happened three other times in U.S. history – including this year. Hillary Clinton is expected to receive around 1.5 million more popular votes than President-Elect Donald Trump who won the electoral count.
If the U.S. presidential election this year came down to the popular vote count, then we’d have a completely altered history and a President-Elect Hillary Clinton. However, the nationwide popular vote, unlike in a vast majority of other nations’ general elections, does not decide who wins a general election in the United States; the electoral 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.” Is it time to abolish the Electoral College for a new system? It would be difficult and – of course – there are pros and cons.
Abolishing the Electoral College
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). So, 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 the electoral votes for that state and the candidate with the most electoral votes for the state wins that state. Since it would take a constitutional amendment to change the system, there is never any solid movement in Congress toward abolishing the Electoral College. There is, however, a lot of talk and rhetoric as to why the U.S. should adopt a different method of electing a president.
Critics of the Electoral College claim that it’s archaic and often point to inherent problems with the system, the biggest of which is a situation like Tilden’s and Gore’s whereby each of them took home more popular votes than than their opponents in their respective elections, but each of their opponents won the White House because of an electoral vote majority. However, the percentage by which Tilden and Gore each won the national popular vote in their respective elections was so minuscule it effectively erased arguments that their eventual victors would make poor presidents, i.e., in the eyes of the American voting population, every major candidate in 1876 and 2000 were more or less equal in their popularity 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 532,668 and three electoral votes, while Texas has a population of 25 million and 32 electoral votes. Critics argue that the individual person’s vote in Wyoming counts almost four times as much in the Electoral College as each individual person’s vote in Texas because when one divides the population by electoral votes, one finds that Wyoming has one “elector” for every 177,556 people and Texas has one “elector” for every 716,000 people. That is a weak argument in that this particular scenario has more to do with individual rights rather than electoral law, and 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’s 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 16 times in U.S. history. For example, the 1992 election between Democrat Bill Clinton and incumbent Republican President George H. W. Bush saw Clinton winning 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 Bill Clinton. And that scenario, according to critics, illustrates another big reason why the Electoral College doesn’t work: the supremacy of a two-party system with no hope for a change to a three-party system.
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 won the election, and without Nader running in 2000, Al Gore would have won that year. However, these arguments are also weak. If an uncontroversial 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 and nor was Nader.
The country’s Founding Fathers sought a representative type of government and that’s why they had the wisdom and fortitude to introduce the Electoral College system – a system that has been tested over the centuries but is still the prevalent law of the land. The prowess and success of our federal system has always relied upon power sharing between each branch of the government. With distinctive roles in place to help counteract the powers of the other branches of government, and the Electoral College has always been a vital component of this process. If the Electoral College was somehow overturned, then a major part of Federalism in the United States would disappear overnight. The Electoral College gives more power to the states and less power to the centralized government, and those are the same type of principles that the country was founded upon. 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’d 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. This is not the case in a majority of other democratic nations around the world that utilize a ‘winner-takes-all’ system.
Abolishing the Electoral College and opting for the direct election of the president would also open up the nation to a multitude of problems because numerous minor parties would form and be incentivized to affect the majority count that was needed to elect a traditional party president. A direct, popular vote for president would therefore result in an unstable political system strife with dozens of extreme political parties that would introduce radical changes in policies, views and laws from one presidential administration to the next. Mayhem would result and the United States’ government would be less-respected. The current system encourages political parties to combine opposing interests into two sets of clear choices, which, in turn, stabilizes the nation and makes the United States different from other massive nations with alternative methods of electing a president i.e., Russia and China;
Let’s consider the 2016 presidential election. Without the Electoral College system in place, each candidate 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, he or she could have run for president from their home state while relying on targeted advertising and media appearances to get the word out. The election of the president in the most powerful country on earth would have been decided the same way the winner of the popular television program “American Idol” is decided – unceremoniously and in a way that is un-American in terms of how our government was formed and how it should operate today.
Without an Electoral College in 2016, 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.) 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 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 the states have a major hand in how presidents of the United States are elected. It’s not a perfect system, but it is a process that has successfully elected 45 presidents since 1789 with only rare occurrences of controversy.
The Electoral College reinforces the two-party establishment that has overwhelmingly provided for a stable government in United States’ history; it stabilizes the country by discouraging extreme or unqualified third-party candidates from running for president; it ensures that both rural and urban populations are recognized on Election Day; and it encourages small states to participate as much as their much larger counterparts.
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.
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