In the 2016 presidential election, the candidate that won the presidency won the official election but lost the popular vote by three million votes. The system that allowed this to happen, the Electoral College, has recently become a hot topic in the news thanks to Senator and presidential-hopeful Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to abolish it. The rest of the country should join in calling for the elimination of one of the most undemocratic mechanisms for voting in the United States.
Before we delve in, how does the Electoral College work, anyway? The most important thing to understand is that when you turn in your ballot, you’re not actually voting for a candidate. In reality, you’re voting for an “elector,” or an appointed person who votes with other electors to elect the president. The size of your state determines the number of electors representing you, meaning less-populated states like Alaska get three while heavily-populated California gets 55.
These electors can, in most states, vote for the opposite candidate that their state voted for. For instance, one of our 2016 electors, former Gov. Sean Parnell, could have cast his electoral vote for Hillary Clinton, even though the state voted for Donald Trump. After all the electoral rallies have been added for a total of 538, the president is decided once a candidate reaches at least 270 electoral votes to win the election.
The most obvious problem with this system is that it directly defies the will of the people. Because electors are not bound by the people, they can go rogue and vote for whoever they want. Granted, defectors — or “faithless electors,” as they’re often called — are unlikely. According to federal archives, electors vote with their state 99 percent of the time. However, the possibility that a group of unelected appointees could try to override the people’s vote is enough to abolish the system.
The most avid proponents of the Electoral College claim it is necessary to act as a check on the people. The argument is rooted in a principled defense of representative democracy, which says that we already don’t live in a “true” democracy to begin with. Senators, Representatives and other elected members of government make decisions for us so that we don’t have to vote on every single issue out there. If we had a direct vote on everything, democracy probably wouldn’t function. Moreover, elected representatives put a damper on more populist, irrational sentiments that lead us to vote for undemocratic decisions. This is why the Senate was originally an unelected body, as it was intended to act as a check against the populist wills of the House of Representatives.
The same logic exists for the Electoral College: a bulwark against our worst inclinations and to stop an unqualified, demagogic president from being elected by the people. This justification would be much more persuasive had the Electoral College not allowed for the same kind of candidate to reach presidency in 2016. Regardless of whether you like Trump or not, he embodies the precise kind of candidate the Electoral College was supposed to prevent. In that case, what really is the point of the Electoral College anymore?
All of this is to say that the Electoral College is at best unnecessary and at worst grossly undemocratic. These are reasons alone to scrap the system. However, there are also plenty of practical reasons to defer to the popular vote.
The first has to do with the way electoral politics works. Right now, the election is decided by only a few states every election cycle like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. The reason these states are so important is because of what’s called a “first past the post” system, meaning the presidential candidate that wins a state takes every single electoral vote. So, even though Hillary Clinton won 43 percent of the vote in Texas, Trump took home all 38 of the state’s electoral votes. The states that are solidly liberal or conservative are “safe states,” meaning that whether you campaign in the state or not, they’re probably going to vote the same as they always have.
The problem here is that there’s almost no point in voting for your preferred candidate in an election. If I’m a Democrat in Alaska, what on earth is the point of voting for the Democratic nominee for president when I know all three of our electoral votes are going to whoever the Republican is? There’s almost no point in turning out to vote, as millions of Americans choose not to do every election cycle.
Another harmful effect is that states that are reliably Republican or Democrat get ignored every election cycle. This is why arguments about how the popular vote will simply empower giant, left-leaning cities will make small states irrelevant. Small, solid red states — often referred to as “flyover states” — with a few electoral votes already get ignored. If Democrats think they can squeeze some 30 or 40 percent out of a red state like Nebraska or Kansas, they now have an incentive to travel there to try and win votes.
The change to the popular vote would be undeniably preferable to the archaic mess of a system we have now. It is vastly more democratic, changes how candidates campaign and makes voting more fair for everyone.