The Electoral College System: It’s Time for a Change
by Catelyn Briggs, HollyAnne Ostrem, & Bash Sanni,
Is the United States’ Electoral College system of electing a president an outdated one that needs to be overhauled or completely abolished? A majority of the American population certainly agree with that because they believe it is not a representation of true democracy. The importance of the presidency in American life cannot be overemphasized, and the way that office is filled is of major national interest. The United States’ electoral system is a compromise between electing a president by popular vote and allowing Congress to determine the leader. This places the legal responsibility for choosing a President in the hands of an Electoral College, whose members are almost unknown and are not bound by constitution to vote the way their states vote. In an article published in the World Almanac for Kids it is explained that the Electoral College consists of 538 members, two from each state corresponding to their two senators plus one for the U.S. House members each state has in Congress. The article points out that to be elected President of the United States, a candidate must win a majority, at least 270, of the electoral votes. It explains that the House of Representatives decides elections that are inconclusive. According to the article, in this system, a candidate who does not win the popular votes can become president by winning the electoral or contingent house election (Elections).
A historian, John C. Fortier, informs in his book, After the People Vote, that in 24 states and the District of Columbia the electors are required to vote for the statewide nominee. Unfortunately, he points out that there are no real penalties for electors who choose not to vote with the state. He relates that in only five states, including North Carolina, violation of electors’ pledge is considered an offence which draws a penalty, depending on the state concerned (Fortier). According to the article “The Final Vote”, published in the Scholastic News- Senior Edition, in all but two states, the presidential candidate who wins a state’s popular vote wins all of that state’s electoral votes. It points out that this is called the “winner-take-all” system, also known as the “all or nothing” rule. It relates that in Maine and Nebraska, electoral votes are divided between the candidate who wins statewide and the winner of the individual congressional districts. The article concludes that in the “winner-take-all” system, it does not matter if a candidate wins a state by a lot or even by just a little as long as he wins a majority of the popular votes, he claims that entire state (The Final Vote). Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover in their article published in the National Journal titled “Close Down That College”, state that the “winner-take-all” system implies that those who voted for the losing candidate in any state completely wasted their vote, since their votes only count on a statewide level. According to them, another disadvantage is that under this system, a highly populated state like California will always be the principal target of presidential candidates (Germond et. al). Simon Sheppard informs in his article “The Electoral College and American Politics” that it is a popular misconception that electoral votes are aggregates of popular votes (Sheppard). Many believe that electoral votes merely strengthen the edge of the popular vote leader. However, Sheppard cites elections like those of 1876, 1888, and 2000, which ended up with the popular vote loser winning the presidency in the Electoral College (Sheppard). The 2000 election, the most recent event showing the weaknesses of the system, remains fresh in the hearts of Americans. Sheppard relates that despite sweeping away the popular votes by over half a million, Al Gore the Democratic candidate was forced to watch the inauguration of his Republican rival, George W. Bush as the forty-third president of the United States, again due to the controversial Electoral College vote (Sheppard). William Schneider in his article titled “Give me an E” explains that prior to the 2000 election, the closest other controversial election was that of 1876. He explains that in that election, Tilden won the popular votes against Hayes. According to him, surprisingly Hayes received just one more electoral vote from the congressional district which granted him the majority of electoral votes and made him the new president of the United States (Schneider). Many American citizens shun polls during presidential elections because they do not agree with the electoral system. These citizens believe their votes do not make a difference, especially if their political view tends to stray from the norm of their region.
Authors Lawrence D. Longley and Neal R. Pierce claim in their book, “The Electoral College Primer 2000”, that the main reason behind the creation of the Electoral College is that the founding fathers did not want congress to solely elect the chief executive. They also did not want the people to directly vote-in the president since they felt that many Americans were not educated enough to make a responsible choice. They relate that the delegates of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 created the electoral system under pressure to reach an agreement. The authors point out that unfortunately, the delegates held a lack of immediate concern about the college’s operation in the future. They believe that a major reason why the idea of the Electoral College gained support from most delegates is that they thought it could be changed in the future if any problems came up (Longley et al).
Longely and Pierce explain that the electoral system has gone through a series of developments since its inception, which have greatly altered it from what was conceived by the founding fathers. According to them, the most important of these changes resulted from the rise of political parties during the time of the 1796 presidential election. They claim that these political organizations began to accumulate national support for their candidates and recruit electors pledged to them. The authors point out that this contradicted the concept of the free elector who would vote for well-thought-of American citizens as planned by the founding fathers. These critics go further by explaining that over the decades, however, the popularization of democratic ideals and a series of unfortunate experiences with legislative politics combined to create an uneven but inevitable movement to popular selection of electors (Longley et. al).
The belief of the founding fathers in creating this system has been completely overtaken by events they never could have imagined. Today most Americans believe they have enough education to make an informed choice between candidates and with obvious loopholes in the system, the legitimacy of the presidency is very often in doubt. In his book Presidential Lottery, James A. Michener points out that a major requirement of any government is that it should be legitimate, it sources of power should be clear-cut, and its citizens should accept decisions as honestly derived (Michener). Many agree that in order to solve this problem in today’s society, America needs to adopt a new system for electing a leader that would add a visible authenticity to its government while protecting the minority from the tyranny of the majority.
It is a consensus agreement among a large majority of Americans that the Electoral College should either be modified or completely abolished. Michener argues that updating the system is a more practical solution since the smaller states still need constitutional protection. He suggests a plan in which the Electoral College would still be retained and inconclusive elections would still be given to congress to decide. He explains that the current distribution of electoral votes would also be the same, but the winner-take-all rule would be completely abolished in all the states including the District of Colombia. He points out that instead the electoral voting would be according to the way each electorate’s district voted. He states that with this plan, the rural areas would be protected as opposed to urban areas, small states as opposed to large, and the more conservative elements of our society as opposed to the radical. He relates that with this plan, the issue of an irresponsible elector would be avoided by adding a provision to the Constitution forcing electors to take a pledge to vote the way their states voted. He notes that by adding this pledge to the Constitution it could then be enforced by law. According to him, to become President, a candidate would still have to win a majority of the electoral votes, but in the event of a tie, the candidate who wins the largest number of individual districts would be the winner. He points out that if the election still remains undecided, Congress would have the final voting right, with each member voting independently with an absolute majority required to win. He relates that if the election still remains inconclusive, then the winner of the popular votes wins the presidency of the United States of America (Michener). With this plan, in North Carolina for example, the twelve votes corresponding to the twelve house members would be decided separately in each district. The two other votes corresponding to the state’s two senators would go to the candidate who wins the state’s aggregate vote. Proponents of this plan argue that a President so chosen would more nearly reflect the total composition of the nation and it would diminish the importance of a few large states over the smaller ones. This plan would also diminish the influence of majorities centered in cities since their swing votes would influence only their electoral district and not the total vote of their state. With this plan, the rural areas would be protected as opposed to urban areas, small states as opposed to large, and the more conservative elements of our society as opposed to the radical. Many say that the present day Electoral College as it operates has an enormous potential to be a dangerous institution. They believe that it can threaten the certainty of the elections and the legitimacy of the presidents. The election of 2000 including two others in the past has provided undisputable evidence of the failings of the system. It is crucial for the modification process to begin as soon as possible. We cannot rewrite history or even go back in time, all we can do is educate others and together we can all make a nationwide difference. There has never been a better time than now to revolutionize America’s electoral system for our next generation.
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“The Final Note.” Scholastic News- Senior Edition 69.9 (2000) Academic Search Elite. EBSCOHOST. J. Murrey Atkins Library, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC. 18 Nov. 2004.
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Longley, Lawrence D., and Neal R. Pierce. The Electoral College Primer 2000. Chelsea: BookCrafters Inc., 1999.
Michener, James A. Presidential Lottery. New York: Random House Inc., 1969.
Schneider, William. “Give me an ‘E’.” National Journal 32.45 (2000): 3522 Academic Search Elite. EBSCOHOST. J. Murrey Atkins Library, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC. 18 Nov. 2004.
Sheppard, Simon. “The Electoral College and American Politics.” Contemporary Review Jun 2001: 278.:344- . MasterFILE Premier. EBSCOHOST. J. Murrey Atkins Library, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC. 18 Nov. 2004.