Electoral College Pros and Cons

Presidential Elector’s ID Tag
Texans Vote In Electoral College. Corbis Historical / Getty Images

The Electoral College system, long a source of controversy, came under especially heavy criticism after the 2016 presidential election when Republican Donald Trump lost the nationwide popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by over 2.8 million votes but won the Electoral College—and thus the presidency—by 74 electoral votes.

Electoral College Pros and Cons

Pros:

  • Gives the smaller states an equal voice.
  • Prevents disputed outcomes ensuring a peaceful transition of power
  • Reduces the costs of national presidential campaigns.

Cons:

  • Can disregard the will of the majority.
  • Gives too few states too much electoral power.
  • Reduces voter participation by creating a “my vote doesn’t matter” feeling.

By its very nature, the Electoral College system is confusing. When you vote for a presidential candidate, you are actually voting for a group of electors from your state who have all “pledged” to vote for your candidate. Each state is allowed one elector for each of its Representatives and Senators in Congress. There are currently 538 electors, and to be elected, a candidate must get the votes of at least 270 electors.

The Obsolescence Debate

The Electoral College system was established by Article II of the U.S. Constitution in 1788. The Founding Fathers chose it as a compromise between allowing Congress to choose the president and having the president elected directly by the popular vote of the people. The Founders believed that most common citizens of the day were poorly educated and uninformed on political issues. Consequently, they decided that using the “proxy” votes of the well-informed electors would lessen the risk of “tyranny of the majority,” in which the voices of the minority are drowned out by those of the masses. Additionally, the Founders reasoned that the system would prevent states with larger populations from having an unequal influence on the election.

Critics, however, argue that Founder’s reasoning is no longer relevant as today’s voters are better-educated and have virtually unlimited access to information and to the candidates’ stances on the issues. In addition, while the Founders considered the electors as being “free from any sinister bias” in 1788, electors today are selected by the political parties and are usually “pledged” to vote for the party’s candidate regardless of their own beliefs.

Today, opinions on the future of the Electoral College range from protecting it as the basis of American democracy to abolishing it completely as an ineffective and obsolete system that may not accurately reflect the will of the people. What are some of the main advantages and disadvantages of the Electoral College?

Advantages of the Electoral College 

  • Promotes fair regional representation: The Electoral College gives the small states an equal voice. If the president was elected by the popular vote alone, candidates would mold their platforms to cater to the more populous states. Candidates would have no desire to consider, for example, the needs of farmers in Iowa or commercial fishermen in Maine.
  • Provides a clean-cut outcome: Thanks to the Electoral College, presidential elections usually come to a clear and undisputed end. There is no need for wildly expensive nationwide vote recounts. If a state has significant voting irregularities, that state alone can do a recount. In addition, the fact that a candidate must gain the support of voters in several different geographic regions promotes the national cohesion needed to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.
  • Makes campaigns less costly: Candidates rarely spend much time—or money—campaigning in states that traditionally vote for their party’s candidates. For example, Democrats rarely campaign in liberal-leaning California, just as Republicans tend to skip the more conservative Texas. Abolishing the Electoral College could make America’s many campaign financing problems even worse.  

    Disadvantages of the Electoral College 

    • Can override the popular vote: In five presidential elections so far—1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016—a candidate lost the nationwide popular vote but was elected president by winning the Electoral College vote. This potential to override the “will of the majority” is often cited as the main reason to abolish the Electoral College.
    • Gives the swing states too much power: The needs and issues of voters in the 14 swing states—those that have historically voted for both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates—get a higher level of consideration than voters in other states. The candidates rarely visit the predictable non-swing states, like Texas or California. Voters in the non-swing states will see fewer campaign ads and be polled for their opinions less often voters in the swing states. As a result, the swing states, which may not necessarily represent the entire nation, hold too much electoral power.
    • Makes people feel their vote doesn’t matter: Under the Electoral College system, while it counts, not every vote “matters.” For example, a Democrat’s vote in liberal-leaning California has far less effect on the election’s final outcome that it would in one of the less predictable swing states like Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio. The resulting lack of interest in non-swing states contributes to America’s traditionally low voter turnout rate.

      The Bottom Line

      Abolishing the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment, a lengthy and often unsuccessful process. However, there are proposals to “reform” the Electoral College without abolishing it. One such movement, the National Popular Vote plan would ensure that the winner of the popular vote would also win at least enough Electoral College votes to be elected president. Another movement is attempting to convince states to split their electoral vote based on the percentage of the state’s popular vote for each candidate. Eliminating the winner-take-all requirement of the Electoral College at the state level would lessen the tendency for the swing states to dominate the electoral process.

      Sources and Further Reference