Counterpoint Column: The Electoral College

Alex Mitchell ’22

Radical institutional change often yields political instability and social conflict. Just ask our friends in France: they have undergone five different republics, two revolutions, and countless other incidents of violence and disorder. On the other side of the globe, the Ecuadorian people have written 20 different constitutions, yet they continue to live under political instability. This observation holds true even at home; change of political institutions and norms in the U.S. has led to significant public conflict. In 2013, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Democrats abolished the filibuster for executive appointments. Now, those same Democratic politicians are enraged at Senate Republicans for utilizing those rules to bypass the filibuster and confirm Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. The future effects of radical institutional change must be considered at great length, and regardless of its intentions, such change will lead to social disorder and further polarization of an already ever-polarized American society. Therefore, we should not entertain the possibility of eliminating the electoral college, but instead, should consider reforming it.

The authors of the Constitution sought to create a system in which every citizen’s vote mattered to those running for office: the electoral college accomplishes this in ways that a simple popular vote system never could. If only the popular vote mattered, urban citizens would control elections because of their far greater numbers. A system in which the citizens of our biggest cities controlled elections, where no one else’s votes mattered, would give urban voters a monopoly on political attention. Campaigns would likely never visit states with smaller populations, and thus those states’ interests would go ignored. On October 26 and 27, President Trump campaigned in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Nebraska, speaking on manufacturing and agricultural jobs. Joe Biden visited Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, along with Florida, where he spoke about immigration, an issue very pertinent to the people of Florida. In a popular vote system, however, both candidates would likely hold events only in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago, and would discuss only the issues that matter to their urban constituents. The electoral college gives middle and lower-class communities in rural areas political capital, while a popular vote system would place all of that power in upper and upper-middle-class communities in urban and suburban areas.

It is also important to understand that the electoral college as it exists today is deeply flawed. Voters in Wyoming hold a single electoral vote for every 200,000 voters while in New York that number exceeds 500,000. In addition, plurality voting means that candidates do not have to win a majority of votes in a state, just more votes than any other candidate, to receive that state’s electoral votes. These issues should be addressed with reform, rather than by eliminating the electoral college system entirely. Fortunately, two states have already given us a strong blueprint for electoral reform. Nebraska and Maine both assign electoral votes proportionally, giving electoral votes to the candidates who win their individual congressional districts, not just to the winner of the state’s popular vote. Consequently, these two states see increased attention from campaigns. On October 27, for example, President Trump visited the solidly red Nebraska, and on election day in 2008, John McCain campaigned in Maine in the hopes of winning the second district’s electoral vote. If all states adopted this system, all populations would have voting power and would thus receive equal attention from campaigns.

Our founders’ worst nightmare was an America controlled by wealthy urban elites. James Madison’s fear of the tyranny of the majority was central to the Constitution. This is what America would become with a simple popular vote system. Furthermore, partisanship tends to cloud long-term thinking: politicians will not support changing a system that elected them, and unfortunately those are the politicians in power. Eliminating the electoral college in favor of a popular vote system eliminates vast segments of the American population from having their interests considered and voices heard, and thus reforming the electoral college is a better way to improve the fairness of federal elections.

Sophie Glaser ’22

Democracy: a term closely associated with the United States, a word repeated in speeches by presidential candidates, critics, and politicians alike, a word that inspires ideas of liberty, freedom, and the American way. Federal elections are considered to be pillars of this idea of democracy, but they do not live up to this narrative. Our elections do not represent the people of the United States and the will of American citizens due to an outdated remnant of the past that serves only to impede representation in government: the electoral college. 

In short, America’s electoral college system means that citizens do not directly vote for their president. Instead, they vote for state electors, who then cast their votes. These electors assemble in mid-December to vote for the next President of the United States. Each state is allotted a certain number of electors, and a majority of electors—270, to be exact—is required to become president-elect. All but two states employ a “winner-take-all” system, meaning that all their electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote in that state, instead of being allotted proportionally to the candidates. Because this “winner-take-all” system essentially erases the actual vote count of those who don’t vote for the leading candidate, politicians can lose the popular vote of the country as a whole, but still win the election. In addition, certain states that tend to flip between political parties in the general election end up gaining favor as “swing states” that are considered crucial to win elections, as they each contain around ten to 30 of the coveted electors needed to win.

Advocates of the electoral college argue a few things. They claim that the electoral college forces candidates to focus on all parts of the country, not just places with high populations. They also say that the electoral college prevents a tyrannical majority rule, and that the electoral college is an important legacy of the Founding Fathers (which is a convenient way of ignoring the fact that the electoral college helped white elites maintain power in early America, but that’s a whole other article), and more. However, proponents of the electoral college ignore its effects on the American election system and its flawed method of determining representation in government. 

Casting aside the popular vote in favor of electors allows politicians to ignore large portions of the country. Republican candidates aren’t concentrating their efforts in Massachusetts, just as Democratic candidates aren’t focusing on the deep red regions of North Dakota. Because these states are viewed as “unwinnable” to the opposing party, candidates don’t spend their time campaigning there and listening to the issues of voters in these regions. Instead, candidates focus mainly on “swing states” to tip the election in their favor. This leads them to put certain issues on the back burner. Gun violence and climate change, for example, are some of the most important issues to young voters, who will make up around 37 percent of the voting populace in the 2020 election, according to Pew Research Center. Yet due to the electoral college, candidates don’t feel the need to address these issues: even at the Vice Presidential Debate on October 7, climate change remained largely undiscussed. In fact, the section dedicated to climate change only briefly mentioned actual policy and was quickly derailed by a heated segment about who would and would not ban fracking. While this seems like an obscure issue to talk about during a national debate, there was a reason behind fracking’s appearance at the debate. The economy of Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state, relies heavily on fracking, and President Trump has been consistently attacking Joe Biden on the issue in local ads. 

While there’s nothing wrong about discussing issues important to a specific state, it is also important to ask which issues are being ignored. Due to the electoral college, candidates have to focus their efforts on niche issues in a few key states in order to win enough electoral votes, rather than focusing on the country as a whole. But here’s the thing: land doesn’t vote. People vote. So why must regions and arbitrary state lanes shape our elections, instead of the issues that affect people regardless of where they live? When the election is determined only by a few random states, everyone is harmed. 

There are so many other problems surrounding our federal elections, and I could spend hours writing about all of them. Votes are weighted unequally from state to state, with a vote in California counting three times less than a vote in Wyoming. A flawed system, based not on the popular vote but rather on delegations of states in Congress, is used to decide the election in the result of a tie. Voter suppression runs rampant across the country, with Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election serving as a prime example. Election Day isn’t even a federal holiday. Between these problems, the electoral college, and more, the country that claims to be one of the greatest democracies on the planet is not living up to its ideals. If we want to embody our ideals of liberty, democracy, and effective representation, Americans must abolish the electoral college. Our government must reflect the people that it governs, not the land they vote on.