The Blog

Why the Electoral College Works

I acknowledge the Electoral college system may not be perfect, but it has many positive features and for now it's the best option the United States has.

As a student of American politics one of the principal debates I encounter is whether or not the electoral college should be scrapped. The electoral college system works based on giving a certain number of electoral college votes to each state, this number is determined by the population of the state. It is therefore based on the number of representatives the state has in the House plus two, the number of senators each state has. The total number of electoral college votes is 538 and a majority of 270 votes is the requirement to win the White House. Most states have a winner take all system, meaning the candidate that wins the majority of the popular vote takes all the electoral college votes of that state. I am in favour of the Electoral College and this is why.

The system has been in place for over two hundred years and it was one of the key compromises of 1787 that helped the United States form as a nation, the other being the Senate having two representatives per state regardless of size. It is a key component of federalism and as former President John F Kennedy noted we cannot abolish one feature of federalism without abolishing all the others.

In spite of what happened in 2000, George Bush winning the electoral college vote but actually losing the popular vote, the system has served America well. It has ensured on all but three occasions that the winner of the White House has had majority public support and can unite the country as both Commander-in-Chief of the Armed forces and Chief Executive. Without this system splinter and extremist parties could gain support and it would become nigh on impossible to win a majority.

Further to this the system also ensures that a candidate has broad support rather than just deep. The perfect example of this is George Wallace who run in the 1968 presidential election. He managed to gain forty five electoral college votes however he won just 13.5% of the national vote, his support was mainly concentrated in the Southern states and he had little support elsewhere. The system helps ensure fringe candidates are not elected against the will of the majority.

Without the electoral college the recent elections where the popular vote has been almost fifty/fifty would require recounts in every district or state, not just in the rare example such as Florida in 2000. This would delay the final results for some weeks or months, potentially leading to chaos both nationally and internationally. This could also increase the influence of the unelected Supreme Court in the electoral process, as some recount processes would inevitably be taken to court and end up in the highest court in the land like the Florida recount of 2000 did in George Bush V Albert Gore Jr.

One of the biggest arguments against the electoral college is the fact some states do not have a law that that prohibits electors voting for another candidate or leaving their ballot blank. However there have been over 27,000 electoral college votes in the history of the United States and in only eleven cases have electors changed their votes, and these changes have never affected the outcome of the election. To me this hardly sounds like a significant problem.

Suggesting getting rid of the Electoral College is one thing, but it is questionable if a suitable reform or alternative has been found. The "congressional district system" system of splitting the vote between the candidates that reach a qualifying threshold is often put forward but it would only change results by a fraction and, using the results of the 2000 election, in some cases it would actually produce a less proportional result than the current Electoral College system. Without any alternative that will work and can be implemented with minimal upheaval surely it is better to keep the old system?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the electoral college preserves the voice of the small states in the Union. As in 1787 the small population states worry that if the Electoral College was to be abolished the votes of their inhabitants would be unimportant compared to more populous states such as California, Texas, New York and Florida. If this was a problem in 1788, when the largest state had only four times the electoral college vote surely this is an even bigger problem now California has over eighteen times the electoral college votes of the states that have only three such as Wyoming and Alaska.

I acknowledge the Electoral college system may not be perfect, but it has many positive features and for now it's the best option the United States has.