Purposes and Effects of the Electoral College

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Since the United States Constitution was ratified, there have been five Presidential elections where the candidate who won the popular vote did not have enough Electoral College votes to be elected as President.  These elections were as follows:  1824 – John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson; 1876 – Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel J. Tilden; 1888 – Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland; 2000 – George W. Bush defeated Al Gore; and 2016 – Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.

(It should be noted that there is a significant amount of evidence to question whether John F. Kennedy collected more popular votes than Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 election due to severe irregularities in Alabama voting results.)

The results of the 2016 election have brought forth a great deal of debate with respect to the continued viability of the Electoral College. Ironically, a Senator from California (which is the largest U.S. state – and an important consideration in this debate) has filed legislation in an attempt to start the process necessary to amend the U.S. Constitution to ensure that the winner of the popular vote becomes the President-elect – but is that truly what was contemplated by the intent of the founding fathers of the United States?

The Committee of Eleven and the Electoral College

In 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were extremely divided about how the President of the newly formed country should be elected, and this issue was sent to the Committee of Eleven on Postponed Matters.

  This Committee of Eleven's purpose was to resolve issues that could not be agreed upon by all the members. In establishing the Electoral College, the Committee of Eleven attempted to resolve the conflict between competing state rights and federalist issues. 

While the Electoral College provides that U.S. citizens could participate by voting, it also gave protection to the rights of the smaller and less populous states by giving each state one Elector for each of the two U.S. Senators as well as for each member of the U.S. State of Representatives.

 The workings of the Electoral College also achieved a goal of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention that the U.S. Congress would not have any input in the Presidential election whatsoever.

Federalism in America 

In order to understand why the Electoral College was devised, it is important to acknowledge that under the U.S. Constitution, both the federal government and the individual states share very specific powers. One of the most important concepts from the Constitution is Federalism, which in 1787 was extremely innovative. Federalism arose as a means to exclude the weaknesses and hardships of both a unitary system and a confederation

James Madison wrote in the "Federalist Papers" that the U.S. system of government is "neither wholly national nor wholly federal." Federalism was the result of years of being oppressed by the British and deciding that the U.S. government would be grounded on specified rights; while at the same time the founding fathers did not want to make the same mistake that had been made under the Articles of Confederation where essentially each individual state was its’ own sovereignty and could override the laws of the Confederation.

Arguably, the issue of state rights versus a strong federal government ended shortly after the America Civil War and the post-war period of Reconstruction.

Since then, the U.S. political scene has been made up of two separate and ideologically distinct major partisan groups – the Democratic and Republican Parties. In addition, there are a number of third or otherwise independent parties.

The Effect of the Electoral College on Voter Turnout

U.S national elections have a significant history of voter apathy, which over the last several decades show that only about 55 to 60 percent of those eligible will actually vote. An August 2016 study by the Pew Research Center ranks the U.S. voter turnout at 31 out of 35 countries with democratic government. Belgium had the highest rate at 87 percent, Turkey was second at 84 percent and Sweden was third at 82 percent.

A strong argument can be made that U.S. voter turnout in Presidential elections stems from the fact that, due to the Electoral College, every vote does not count.

In the 2016 election, Clinton had 8,167,349 votes to Trump’s 4,238,545 in California which has voted Democratic in every Presidential election since 1992. In addition, Trump had 4,683,352 votes to Clinton’s 3,868,291 in Texas which has voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1980. Further, Clinton had 4,149,500 votes to Trump’s 2,639,994 in New York which has voted Democratic in every Presidential election since 1988. California, Texas and New York are the three most populated states and have a combined 122 Electoral College votes.

The statistics support the argument of many that under the present Electoral College system, a Republican presidential vote in California or New York does not matter, just as a Democratic presidential vote in Texas does not matter. These are only three examples, but the same can be stated as true in the predominantly Democratic New England states and the historically Republican Southern states. It is entirely probable that voter apathy in the United States is due to the belief held by many citizens that their vote will not have any effect on the outcome of the Presidential election.

Campaign Strategies and the Electoral College

When looking at the popular vote, another consideration should be campaign strategies and finances. Taking into consideration the historical vote of a particular state, a presidential candidate may decide to avoid campaigning and or advertising in that state. Instead, they will make more appearances in states that are more evenly divided and can be won to add onto the number of Electoral votes which are required to win the Presidency.

 

One final issue to consider when weighing the merits of the Electoral College is when does the U.S. Presidential vote become final. The popular vote occurs on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November every fourth even year that is divisible by four; then the Electors of the Electoral College meet in their home states on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December of the same year; and it isn’t until January 6th immediately following the election that the joint session of Congress counts and certifies the votes. However, this seems to be moot seeing that during the 20th Century, in eight different Presidential elections, there has been a sole elector who did not vote consistent with that Elector’s states popular vote. In other words, the results on election night reflect the final electoral college vote. 

In every election where the individual who lost the popular vote was voted in, there have been calls for ending the Electoral College. Obviously, this would not affect the outcome of the 2016 election but it could have an impact on future elections, some of which might be unforeseen. 

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Kelly, Martin. "Purposes and Effects of the Electoral College." ThoughtCo, Dec. 1, 2016, thoughtco.com/purposes-effects-of-the-electoral-college-4117377. Kelly, Martin. (2016, December 1). Purposes and Effects of the Electoral College. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/purposes-effects-of-the-electoral-college-4117377 Kelly, Martin. "Purposes and Effects of the Electoral College." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/purposes-effects-of-the-electoral-college-4117377 (accessed January 19, 2018).