How the Electoral College Fails Democracy

by Michael Beaudet

After the contentious end to the 2016 election, the Electoral College has once again entered the national spotlight. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but still lost the election. Americans are once again faced with answering tough questions, what is the Electoral College, why do we have it, and most importantly, does it actually work? Following the election, the LA Times argued that the system is illegitimate and outdated. On the other hand, experts at the Cato institute have argued it still serves an important purpose, protecting smaller states from larger ones.

Unfortunately, there are certain aspects of the Electoral College that make it indefensible in a modern democracy.

Our founders crafted the Electoral College as a critical part of a compromise between the North and the South. According to Professor Akhil Reed Amar, (Sterling professor of law and political science at Yale University), the Electoral College was a crucial part of the infamous, three-fifths compromise. The three-fifths compromise allowed the southern states to count slaves as three-fifths of a person when tallying their population. This inflated population figure was then used to determine the number of votes awarded to the state in the Electoral College. Amar argues that if the founders had utilized direct democracy, the more densely populated North would have had an advantage over the South.

Instituting the Electoral College, allowed the Framers to insure the South’s support for the Constitution.

In the modern context, the Electoral College functions in the same way it did when it was first implemented. The number of electors is based off of number of representatives in the House and one seat for each senator. Electors are then selected by voters on Election Day, and participate in a largely ceremonial vote in which the president is actually elected. This process has remain largely unchanged since it was first implemented. This system has existed since the nation’s founding but it features some glaring flaws, some of which could even be considered undemocratic. Even with its many weaknesses, some pundits offer explanations to justify the continued existence of the Electoral College.

 


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Many of pundit’s explanations can be dismissed after more than a cursory glance. One common explanation for the continued existence of the Electoral College, is that if the election were decided by pure popular vote, candidates would only remain in large cities and metropolitan areas. This argument may seem convincing, especially when it is presented through memes shared on social media but it is not supported by data.

Examining the travel records of candidates shows that the Electoral College does not insure that candidates visit all parts of the country.

Supporters argue that this is important so that candidates are representative of the country’s interests as a whole. Fairvote.org, (a non-partisan, non-profit dedicated to making democracy more equitable), shows that in the 2012 elections both candidates held campaign events in only 12 states.

If supporters of the Electoral College actually supported candidates visiting all parts of the country, they would be concerned about the importance of swing states. Another major argument for the Electoral College is that like many other features of the constitution, it is designed to prevent a tyranny of the majority.

A recent article in the Washington Post clearly debunks this line of argument. As the article states, unlike other precautions instituted by the founders, the Electoral College is the only one that allows a minority to take action over a majority. All of the other precautions are designed to allow minorities to block tyrannous majorities. It allows this in two ways, the most obvious is the fact that Donald Trump failed to win the popular vote but still won the election. Another undemocratic flaw of the Electoral College highlights the ability of a minority to take action. In this case, political elites could take action to change election results. Although it is rare, electors can choose to vote for whoever they want when they cast their final ballot. Contrary to what their name implies, electors are not elected and instead are chosen by political parties. Theoretically, faithless electors could completely change final election results over the will of the majority.

A third and final argument made by pundits in support of the Electoral College is that it protects small states from larger ones. Usually, this argument is framed along the lines that this was the framers original intention. Professor Amar argues that the important division at the country’s founding was not between small and large but instead between slave and non-slave. Moving away from original intention, it is clear that the Electoral College in practice still fails to protect small states. Although small states receive proportionally more of the vote then they otherwise would, candidates still do not focus on small states. As was made clear by the Fairvote data, candidates focus on swing states, especially large swing states like Florida, where they have the best chance of capturing a large amount of electoral votes. Even though small states receive proportionally more of the vote, their clout is lessened by other structural factors of the Electoral College.

Overall, the Electoral College is a relic of the United States’ slavery ridden past.

Even though pundits may make legitimate arguments about positive aspects of the Electoral College, modern data does not support these arguments. When put into practice it fails to incentivize candidates to visit large portions of the country, it fails to protect against a tyranny of the majority and it fails to protect small states. Although, changing our democratic process is a risk, it could lead to a novel process that actually carries out the laudable goals that the Electoral College fails to achieve.


Michael Beaudet is a senior economics and foreign affairs major from the University of Virginia. He describes himself as possessing unquenchable ambition and limited knowledge, he hopes to make a difference in the world. His goals are to succeed, meaningfully impact the world in a positive way for others and be happy working hard.


The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.


The image above depicts the 2004 Presidential Election vote by counties. It was created by William S. Saturn and is under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. It can be found here.

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