Admit it. It’s fun watching states light up red or blue on election night, and it’s even more fun when you see a state’s electoral votes tallied under the candidate you voted for. It’s a bit of an American tradition for those of us who follow politics. What’s most exciting is when the race comes down to one swing state in an extremely tight race (who can forget “Florida, Florida, Florida!”?). But why does America’s electoral system have to be so complicated?
First, it’s important to know why the system exists in the first place. The Electoral College was created as a compromise between Federalists and anti-Federalists at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Though this is an oversimplification of what either side fought for at the Convention, you can assume that anti-Federalists generally wanted each state to have one vote in electing the President, with the candidate who received votes from a majority of – at the time, seven – states winning, and Federalists wanted the people to directly elect the President. As a compromise, both parties agreed to a system that allocated electoral votes to states by adding together the number of senators and representatives they had in Congress (a minimum of three votes). The winner of a presidential election would be the candidate who receives the majority of the electoral votes, and if no candidate reaches a majority, the decision would be put in the hands of the House of Representatives.
Simple enough, right? Actually, there’s another wrinkle. Those electoral votes aren’t automatically allocated to whoever wins a state’s popular vote. Instead, they’re cast by actual people, known as electors, who are appointed by their states. Technically, when people go to the polls, they’re not voting for a Presidential candidate; they’re voting for a set of electors who will elect the President for them. Theoretically, those electors could completely disregard the will of the people in the state they represent and vote however they please. In fact, it’s happened 157 times (though 71 instances can be attributed to 1872 and 1912 when a candidate or his running mate died before electors cast their ballots, so electors changed their votes accordingly). These electors are known as “faithless electors,” and while they have yet to swing an election, there’s still a possibility they could in the future.
The structure of the Electoral College also alters the way candidates campaign. Because general elections are about winning states, not necessarily votes, candidates have an incentive to spend all of their resources on the contentious swing states, leaving safe states by the wayside. No Republican would waste his/her time or resources campaigning in California because it’s solidly Democratic. Likewise, no Democrat would waste his/her time or resources campaigning in Texas because it’s solidly Republican. Never mind the fact that those two states account for 66 million people, approximately 20% of the electorate. Small states also get ignored; no candidate needs to worry about the 3 electoral votes each in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, and Wyoming. Instead, candidates choose to focus on states like Florida, Ohio, Colorado, and New Hampshire.
Another issue with the Electoral College arises when the candidate who wins a plurality of the popular vote fails to win a majority of the electors, which has happened four times in American history. Most recently, and perhaps most controversially, Democrat Al Gore received over 500,000 more votes than Republican George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, but lost the Electoral College 271 to 266 (one elector from D.C. abstained). This leads me to ask, why do we continue to use such an arcane, complicated system to elect a President when we could just let the people decide? Why should a candidate who received the most votes not be elected to the White House? Why can’t we just replace the Electoral College?
The answer is political will, or lack thereof. While a lot of people would agree that the system is broken beyond repair, neither major political party has incentive to change it. Republicans like the Electoral College because it gives smaller, rural states that are solid red disproportionately more representation than the larger states (of the five largest states by population, only Texas is consistently red). For Democrats, the relatively recent memory of the 2000 election still stings, but as it stands, the political map strongly favors the party; the large and expanding list of safe blue states has given Democrats a head start in the past few elections, lowering the number of swing states necessary for victory.
Numerous alternatives have been proposed over the years to fix or replace the Electoral College. Obviously, the choice to scrap the system entirely and replace it with a simple popular vote would be the most ideal, but it would require an enormous amount of political inertia to overcome (the Bayh-Celler Amendment proposed during the 91st Congress came close to eliminating the Electoral College in favor of a popular vote system, but it died in the Senate). Another alternative would be to switch the format that both Maine and Nebraska use; allocate two electoral votes to the whole state and a single electoral vote for each congressional district. While tempting at first glance, this would give Republicans an enormous electoral advantage. States like Illinois, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington, consistently safe blue states in the winner-takes-all system, have vast rural, red-leaning areas that are offset by a single major city (i.e. Chicago, New York City, Portland, Philadelphia, and Seattle); switching to this system would actually allocate most of these states’ electoral votes to the Republicans.
Perhaps the most likely alternative to the much derided Electoral College is National Popular Vote (NPV), an interstate compact wherein, once the requisite number of states to make up 270 electoral votes have entered, states agree to allocate all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of whoever wins their own popular votes. NPV is unique in that it uses the Electoral College to its advantage instead of tearing down the system entirely. Ten states plus D.C., representing 165 electoral votes, have already agreed to the compact, with another six states representing 83 electoral votes having pending legislation on the compact. The problem with NPV is getting larger states on board. At the moment, all of the states that have already agreed to the compact are the most consistently blue states. Other Democratic-leaning states could be poised to sign on, but many are too small to make much progress (e.g. Delaware, Maine). Swing states that receive plenty of campaign attention each election cycle don’t have much of an incentive to sign on to the compact because then they no longer play a key role in elections. Republican-leaning states afraid that the Electoral College might come back to bite them could be encouraged to sign on, but many Republicans probably still remember what it did for them back in 2000 and might see it as a structural advantage.
At any rate, it’s unlikely the Electoral College will be replaced anytime soon. Outside of a Herculean effort by popular vote activists, the only way to overcome the political inertia of the Electoral College is for another Bush-Gore scenario to occur, particularly one that flips the other way. Such a situation would galvanize support for NPV, or any other alternative, on the right and might create enough momentum to topple the system. Otherwise, the road to 270 will remain the only pathway to the White House for the foreseeable future.