Is it Time to Eliminate the Electoral College?

Published: November 18, 2016

By Jim Lichtman
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No, this is not the Electoral College. (Actually, it’s the Student Center at The New Hampshire Technical Institute where I spent many a happy day partaking of the luncheon cuisine while chatting with students attending the Contemporary Ethical Issues class led by Professor Stephen Ambra.)

The Electoral College is a process, not a location, and a frustrating one to easily understand.

According to the most recent vote totals, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by more than 1.1 million popular votes (Clinton with 62,403,269 votes to 61,242,652 for Trump).

“That margin,” The Nation reports (Nov. 16), “could easily double before the end of an arduous process of counting ballots, reviewing results, and reconciling numbers for an official total.”

Will the final totals change the outcome? Not likely.

All individuals running for public office are elected by direct vote of the people – one person, one vote – with one exception: when we vote for a U.S. President.

Every four years, the Gallup organization reports (Nov. 7), the same questions come up: “What is the Electoral College?” and “Why does the U.S. have such an odd selection system?” and “Can it be replaced with something more straightforward?”

“In response to the latter question,” V. Lance Tarrance writes for Gallup, “Americans say yes. A majority (53%) first told Gallup in 1948 that the Electoral College system should be discontinued. After the contested presidential election in 2000, Gallup found, again, that 61% favored replacing the Electoral College — this time with a popular vote option.

“And in 2013… More than six in 10 (63%) favored such a law.”

So what was the original purpose of the College? Blame the Catholics.

“The Founding Fathers originally designed the Electoral College as an indirect hedge against a national majority having too much power over individual states,” Gallup says.

“Based on their readings of historical attempts at democratic governments in Greece and Rome, the founders believed that the various states would lose much of their leverage over an unfettered executive branch — so they created a novel system based on a direct popular election within each of the various states. They wanted an extra layer of ‘electors’ as part of the federal system of checks and balances to prevent a radical mobocracy from gaining control of the new country.

“The bottom line was to prevent an ‘imperial presidency’ and reduce regional factions that could distort a popular vote. A direct popular election system was proposed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 but was rejected. The framers of the Constitution wanted a system not unlike the process used to select the Catholic pope, in which the College of Cardinals votes to elect a successor.”

While Gallup notes that the process has undergone modification over the years, the system boils down to this:

“Since 1961, the Electoral College has numbered 538 electors — 435 represent U.S. House apportionment, 100 represent the two U.S. senators from each of the 50 states, and three are the District of Columbia’s electors. The majority required to win is 270…

“The number of state electors is linked to the number of members of the House of Representatives in each state, and that number is updated every 10 years by the U.S. Census (required by the U.S. Constitution). Thus, the Electoral College stays current with the congressional power of the states, decade by decade.”

However, Gallup notes two key criticisms:

“In a deeply polarized electorate such as in the U.S. today, the loser of the national popular vote can win the Electoral College vote.

“This has happened four times in U.S. history (1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000) out of a total of 56 presidential elections — which means that 90% of the time, the system produces the same winner as dictated by the popular vote. Additionally, for those who worry about the need for an absolute statistical majority, winning less than 50% of the vote did not seem to impair the administrations of such presidents as Woodrow Wilson (1912, 1916), Harry Truman (1948), John F. Kennedy (1960), Richard Nixon (1968), Bill Clinton (1992, 1996) and George W. Bush (2000).

“A second criticism of the Electoral College is that it can distort any presidential campaign by giving extra weight to certain small states and preventing an urban-centric election. However, this is somewhat disingenuous, as the 25 least-populated states — half of all states — have only 116 electoral votes, or 21% of the 538 electors of the Electoral College, while the 10 most-populated states have more than twice the power (256 electoral votes, or about 50% of all of the electors in the Electoral College).”

It’s interesting to note that the Gallup report was released on November 7, one day before this year’s national election.

“Additionally, the 2016 presidential election may come down to a handful of swing states that seem to reflect adequate diversity across all regions and types of voter coalitions. In the East, two swing states are Pennsylvania and New Hampshire; in the Midwest, swing states include Ohio and Iowa. In the South, Florida and North Carolina are considered swing states, and in the West so are Colorado and Nevada.”

However, the so-called “blue wall” states of Democratic support – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – played a much greater role than in previous elections, thus accounting for Trump’s Electoral victory.

Returning to the central question: Should the Electoral College be abolished?

“…this is about a higher principle than partisanship,” The Nation adds, “and about something that matters more than personalities. This is about democracy itself. When the winner of an election does not take office, and when the loser does, we have evidence of a system that is structurally rigged. Those who favor a rigged system can defend it—and make empty arguments about small states versus big states that neglect the fact that many of the country’s smallest states (Delaware, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont) backed the popular-vote winner. But those who favor democracy ought to join their voices in support of reform.”

Getting such an amendment passed would take “a three-fourths ratification by the 50 states,” Gallup says, “meaning only 13 states need to vote against a constitutional amendment to defeat it.”

Nonetheless, I am in favor of eliminating the Electoral College for three simple reasons:

1) With the two party system firmly established over 238 years, “a radical mobocracy” vote is highly unlikely.

2) If the current system has correctly elected a president with a majority of the popular vote 90 percent of the time, why not dump the College and make it 100 percent?

3) At the end of the day, a vote for the highest office in the land should still come down to one person, one vote.


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