The United States is the only developed democracy in the world not using a direct national popular vote system. As Alexander Hamilton indicates in The Federalist Papers, the founding fathers believed a direct democracy was too dangerous—allowing the masses to choose government officials would give them too much power and potentially allow a tyrant to manipulate the masses and win the presidency. Moreover, the southern states were strongly against a national popular vote because slaves were unable to vote in the South. A direct election of the president would minimize southern influence, as a significant portion of their states’ populations was disenfranchised.
The Electoral College was also created as a means of ensuring that the president would be a qualified individual. Beyond just preventing mob-rule and the volatility of public opinion, though, the Electoral College was supposed to protect the interests of small states. However, over time, scholars have argued that the Electoral College creates a government unrepresentative of America’s population. In 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016, the winning presidential candidate won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote.
For a nation that constantly claims it is “representative of the people” and has historically emphasized the promotion of democracy worldwide, it is rather ironic that the very process in which the United States elects its leaders is insufficiently democratic. However, failing to represent the people's wishes is not the Electoral College’s only flaw. The Electoral College is detrimental to the American people because it increases polarization, hurts geographical interests, and diminishes political equality, ultimately leading to a government that fails to address American citizens’ needs.
Polarization caused by low voter turnout rates helps elect presidential candidates that are not representative of the constituency. When voter turnout is low, the most partisan voters are likely to turn out and vote, leading to more extreme candidates winning elections. Paul Steenkiste, a data analyst at Stanford University, explains that “the majority of Americans are not as ideologically polarized as their representatives…[however,] the smaller the voter pool becomes, the more weight a single vote carries and the easier it becomes for an active, partisan minority to determine an election’s outcome.” Unfortunately, the Electoral College depresses voter turnout: Bob Fredericks, a reporter for the New York Post, finds that “52.4 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in New York, 53.8 percent in California, 51.1 percent in Texas and 52.1 percent in Oklahoma ... in toss-up states, turnout was significantly higher: Florida, 65.1 percent; Ohio, 64.5 percent; and New Hampshire, 70.3 percent.” Empirically, it is clear that fewer people vote in states that are not swing states under the Electoral College.
Under the Electoral College system, all votes for the losing candidate in each state do not impact the outcome of the election. Regardless of whether a candidate wins 51 percent of the votes in a state or 100 percent, the outcome will be the same: all of the electoral votes are allocated to the winning candidate. Most people know that their state is most likely going to be either red or blue, which reduces the incentive to turnout, especially if they are voting for the less prevalent party. Stanford historian Clifton Parker agrees: “four out of five Americans exercised no real electoral voice in the 2012 presidential election due to the … Electoral College system.” For many voters in the United States, voting is the exercise of political powerlessness, for their state’s electoral votes will likely swing a certain way regardless. The Electoral College thus entrenches polarization in the nation’s political climate by decreasing voter turnout rates.
Some contend that the Electoral College decreases polarization. They argue that because a candidate cannot secure the presidency without winning states across multiple regions, candidates must make compromises to appeal to voters from all over America. Furthermore, they must pander to the middle in order to appeal to swing state voters. But the argument is fundamentally disproven by the low voter turnout issue. Requiring a distribution of support from around the country does not truly decrease polarization because the most partisan voters from every state are the ones that turn out most often. More moderate voters, as discussed by Steenkiste, are less likely to vote under the Electoral College. Thus, the counterargument is rendered obsolete until the distribution of voters becomes more representative of the nation. The only way to truly decrease political polarization is to delegitimize the perception that America is largely divided by bringing median voters to the polls.
The Electoral College harms democracy and productive policy by empowering presidents to prioritize swing state residents at the expense of other citizens. Douglas Kriner, a professor at the University of Boston, writes that the Electoral College system entrenches political inequality between states because some swing state voters are of greater political importance than other citizens. He explains that “across a wide range of policy areas, Presidents routinely pursue policies that disproportionately benefit voters in swing states at the expense of a fair and economically optimal distribution of federal resources. [The Electoral College]...incentivize[s] Presidents to engage in their own form of particularism.” Because presidents require the votes of swing state voters, they often prioritize requests from the governors of swing states and “pursue policies that are not purely in the national interest, but that disproportionately benefit politically important constituencies.”
The allocation of FEMA funds throughout the United States illustrates the problem at hand. John Gasper from Carnegie Mellon University notes that “the presidential electoral competitiveness of the state is associated with an increased number of disaster relief funds.” States that are solidly blue or red, such as Illinois or Texas, are less likely to receive disaster relief funding than swing states because candidates are not as concerned about their electoral votes. Patrick Roberts of the Hoover Institution observes that Bill Clinton refused to provide recovery aid to the South Side of Chicago after floods caused $6.7 million in damage because Illinois is solidly Democratic. However, he did provide aid to New Orleans when a similar flood occured; Roberts attributes this discrepancy to the fact that Louisiana was a battleground state at the time. The Electoral College can give certain voters more influence over a president’s policy decisions; a president might pass policies just to gain the votes of those in a politically competitive state.
Supporters of the Electoral College still argue that it is critical for protecting the interests of smaller states. Currently, no single geographical region holds the electoral majority needed to win presidential elections. Without the Electoral College, small states would lose their influence and would receive less representation in government. However, when looking at the interests of small states in reality it is clear that, with or without the Electoral College, small state interests are relatively unimportant to presidential candidates. George Edwards, author of Why the Electoral College is Bad for America, finds that in the 2008 election “Obama and McCain … never went to any of the seventeen other states with six or fewer electoral votes or campaigned in Washington, DC … Between them, the two presidential candidates personally campaigned in only five of the twenty-nine smallest states.”
Candidates visit certain states based on whether or not they are relevant and competitive. Edward finds that Obama and McCain did not even cater to particular interests of states’ citizens while campaigning: “their stump speeches...addressed issues of national concern such as the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the financial crisis and the economy, healthcare, education, and energy.” In reality, small states are not represented under the Electoral College any more than they would be in a direct election. Edwards further states that “nowhere ... has anyone found that voters choose candidates on the basis of their stands on state and local issues. Indeed, candidates avoid such issues, because they do not want to be seen in the rest of the country as pandering to special interests.” Not only do states not have uniform interests, but candidates purposely avoid these topics because they do not want to appear as if they are merely puppets for pressure groups. The Electoral College does not protect small state interests; it only incentivizes those in government to pass policies that prioritize the needs of swing states.
The Electoral College is detrimental to political equality: it suppresses minority voices, makes certain votes count more than others and increases the incentive to commit voter fraud. With regards to race, “exit polls suggest that in the past twelve presidential elections (1972 and every one since), the Republican candidate won only about 10 percent of the black vote, on average; the Democrat averaged 87 percent.” George Edwards notes that the greatest concentrations of African Americans are in Deep South states. Despite a large majority of these African Americans voting for Democratic candidates, these states are often red. Candidates are not incentivized to focus on the interests and wants of African Americans because they know that their votes will often be inconsequential to the outcome of southern states in the Electoral College.
While electoral votes are allocated to states based on population, every state is given a minimum of three electoral votes, which warps voting power. Votes cast in a less populated state are worth three to four times as much as a vote cast in a highly populated state. First, the minimum number of electoral votes a state can have is three—the number does not increase proportionally enough for larger states. Small states will always have at least three electoral votes regardless of how small their population is, giving each individual voter more power, while large state populations are comparatively improperly represented. For example, the Huffington Post reports that Wyoming had a population of 563,767 and has three electoral votes in the Electoral College. California has a population of 37,254,503 and has 55 electoral votes. The three electors for Wyoming represent an average of 187,923 residents, but in California, each elector represents an average of 677,355 residents, making a vote in Wyoming worth 3.6 times more than one in California.
Second, the electoral votes allocated to states are not adjusted regularly. The following excerpt from The Washington Post sums it up: “According to the Census Bureau, urban populations increased 12 percent between 2000 and 2010. Cities are growing in the biggest states, where each individual vote means the least … and the residents of the increasingly sparsely populated Southern and Midwestern states have Electoral College votes that are growing in power.” The population continues to grow, but the number of votes allotted to states under the Electoral College does not change. The widening value of electoral votes for different states exacerbates political inequalities, as votes in a small state are worth relatively more than votes in a larger state.
Third, the Electoral College is ill-defended against manipulation and voter suppression. Barry Edwards of the Presidential Studies Quarterly explains that “under the [winner-takes-all system], a few votes can change the outcome of entire states, which may affect the national election result… [it] creates incentives for fraud because there may be a large payoff from stealing a few votes.” As seen in the 2000 election, under the Electoral College, five hundred votes in a swing state could change the outcome of an entire election. However, under a direct election, altering an outcome would require much more effort: one would have to swing perhaps a million votes in order to change an outcome. The sheer difficulty of changing the outcome will decrease the incentive to do so.
Supporters of the Electoral College tend to highlight the influence of the minority vote in swing states. They claim that under a direct vote system, blacks will be 12 percent of the electorate as opposed to being represented better in swing states. However, a prerequisite to black voices being critical in elections is making sure that they can turn out to vote. The ease of manipulation of the Electoral College incentivizes voter suppression laws. In the 2016 election, for example, twenty-seven thousand votes separated Trump and Clinton in Wisconsin and three hundred thousand registered voters, according to a federal court, lacked the strict forms of voter ID necessary to vote. Voter turnout in Wisconsin was at its lowest levels in twenty years and decreased 13 percent in Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s African-American population lives.
The Electoral College incentivizes these laws because these few votes could change the outcome of the whole election. Minority voices in swing states with large minority populations can be suppressed to dictate control over the swing state’s electoral votes. The Electoral College ultimately prioritizes swinging elections over the individual American’s unprohibited right to the ballot. Eliminating the Electoral College would go a long way towards lessening the effectiveness of voter suppression and democratizing access to voting.
Time for Abolition
The harms of the Electoral College can be seen throughout the political sphere. As the United States elected an extremely polarizing president, in turn revitalizing many far-right groups, it appears that appealing to the most partisan parts of the electoral base is an effective political strategy. Swing states continue to hold every eye during presidential elections, at the expense of the rest of the country. The Electoral College is often a vehicle for oppression rather than for appropriate representation. The election of Donald Trump, who fails to represent the majority of Americans, attests to the Electoral College’s modern failures.
While the United States tries to embody many of its founding principles, oppression of the masses is not one of them. It is time for the United States to stop using an institution that shrugged at slavery as a key feature of its electoral process. The Electoral College today increases political polarization, prioritizes certain geographic regions over others and impairs political equality, all of which harm America’s civic order. To form, as the Constitution puts it, “a more perfect Union”, the United States should abolish the Electoral College.
Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Gate.
Sophia Lam is a third year chemistry and political science major from New York City. On campus, she’s a member of Phi Alpha Delta and a debate teacher at Debate It Forward. She’s previously worked as an intern at Boies Schiller and Flexner and at Pfizer Inc.