Editor’s note: While we hear a lot about the “Electoral College,” many of us don’t really know much about what it is and how it works. Here is a quick review. There are a total of 538 Electoral votes. Each state gets one for each senator and one for each congressional seat. Alabama has 9. The largest states are California (55), Texas (38), Florida (29), New York (29).
To the best of my knowledge, this system is unique to the U.S. presidential election. All other elections are based on which candidates receive the most popular votes. However, this is not the case with the electoral system. For instance, while Donald Trump won the 2016 election with 304 electoral votes to 228 for Hillary Clinton, she received 2.8 million more popular votes than Trump.
This is because under the Electoral system, winner takes all. In Alabama, this means that whoever wins the popular vote (Trump or Biden), will get all 9 electoral votes In other words, if you vote for the losing candidate in your state, your vote does not count.
When you go to the polls to vote for a president every four years, you’re participating in an indirect vote. Why is it indirect? Well, because of the electoral college. Some say the electoral college is key to maintaining what’s good about U.S. politics, while others want to abolish the institution in favor of a more direct system. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the electoral college in the context of modern American politics.
Imagine a U.S. presidential with no electoral college. If only the popular vote mattered, candidates might concentrate their energies on densely populated metro areas like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Depending on your perspective, that might sound like a change for the worse. It would mean candidates would have little reason to consider, say, the state of farming in Iowa or the opiate crisis in New Hampshire.
One reason that some analysts support the electoral college is that it encourages candidates to pay attention to small states and not just get out the vote in big, populous states and cities. The electoral college gives small states more weight in the political process than their population would otherwise confer.
Pro #2: It provides a clean, widely accepted ending to the election (most of the time).
The electoral college, proponents say, makes U.S. presidential elections less contentious by providing a clear ending. There’s no need for a national recount when you have an electoral college.
If one state has voting issues, you can just do a recount in that state rather than creating national upheaval. And to win, a candidate must garner the support of voters in a variety of regions. That means whoever wins the presidency must build a truly national coalition. This, in turn, helps promote national cohesion and the peaceful transfer of power between presidents and helps keep the nation’s political system stable.
Pro #3: It makes it easier for candidates to campaign.
If you’re a Democrat running for president, you don’t have to spend too much time or money wooing voters in left-leaning California. The same goes for Republican candidates and right-leaning Texas.
The fact that certain states and their electoral votes are safely in the column of one party or the other makes it easier and cheaper for candidates to campaign successfully. They can focus their energies on the battleground states. Some argue that getting rid of the electoral college could make American presidential elections even more expensive than they already are, exacerbating what some see as America’s campaign finance problem.
Pro or Con: It keeps the two-party system strong.
This one is either a pro or a con, depending on your point of view. The electoral college helps keep the two-party system strong. It makes it very hard for a third party to break through at the national level and increases the risk that a third party could spoil a candidate’s chance of winning, which in turn discourages people from voting for third-party candidates.
Some analysts credit the two-party system with keeping American politics stable and driving candidates to the political center, while others would like to see a multi-party system takes hold in the U.S. So, depending on where you stand with regard to the two-party system, you’ll probably have corresponding feelings about the electoral college.
Con #1: It can make people feel like their votes don’t matter.
In the electoral college, it’s true that not every vote matters. A Democrat in California who gets stuck in traffic and doesn’t make it to the polls probably shouldn’t beat themselves up. The same can’t be said for a voter in Florida, Ohio or another swing state.
U.S. voter participation rates are already quite low. Some argue that eliminating the electoral college would be an easy way to raise them and boost Americans’ engagement in the political process.
If you follow U.S. federal elections and you don’t live in a swing state, you might find yourself grumbling that some voters get all the attention. If you don’t live in a swing state like Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc., you probably won’t see as many ads, have as many canvassers come to your door or get polled as frequently. The electoral college means that swing states – which aren’t necessarily the most representative of the country as a whole – get most of the attention.
And even within swing states, certain counties are more competitive than others. That means voters in those counties are courted particularly hard. If that offends your sense of fairness and you think that candidates should fight for the votes of all Americans, you may oppose the electoral college.
Con #3: It can clash with the popular vote.
Remember the 2000 election when Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the electoral college, and therefore the presidency? That was enough to turn some Americans off from the electoral college forever.
If the U.S. eliminates the electoral college, that scenario would never happen again. The potential for the electoral college to conflict with the result of the popular vote is one of the most commonly cited arguments against the electoral college.
Con #4: There remains the possibility of “rogue electors.”
Many states have no law requiring electors to vote the way their state has voted. Electors in these states are “unbound.” Therefore, the electoral college is based on a set of traditions that electors vote the way their state votes.
However, there’s always the possibility of “rogue” or “faithless” electors who could give a vote to a candidate who didn’t win the elector’s state. This also worries critics of the electoral college.
Will the U.S. decide to eliminate the electoral college? It’s hard to say. There’s a movement to encourage states to split their electors in proportion to the percentage of the state vote that each candidate gets. While that wouldn’t eliminate the electoral college, it would change the winner-take-all nature of our system and the way candidates think about state campaigns. Time will tell whether that reform – and others – come to pass.