Issue Report: US electoral college

Should the US adopt a different method of electing its President?

The Electoral College is the name given to the process by which the American President is elected. Rather than a nationwide tally of votes being made, votes are counted state by state. States are allotted a certain number of ‘electors’ according to the size of their population. The candidate who wins the majority of votes in a particular state wins all the electors for that state with the candidate who has won over the most electors becoming President. This leads to the possibility where one candidate narrowly wins enough states to have a majority of the electoral college, while his opponent wins a majority of actual votes nationwide; this has occurred four times in US history. In the 2000 US election, Al Gore won a majority of votes nationwide, yet his opponent, George W. Bush, won the election. And in the 2016 election, Donald Trump won the electoral college, while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three million votes. Each result has led to greater scrutiny and debate surrounding the elector college system. The debate surrounds whether the electoral college is undemocratic, not reflective of the will of the national population in its broadest sense, whether it protects the interests of small states, and whether it distorts campaigns in an inappropriate manner such that candidates focus on a few states rather than the broader population. Other sub-debates are reflected below.

Undemocratic : Is the electoral college undemocratic?

The electoral college is undemocratic because it is not based on the popular vote

In any proper democracy, the winner of any election should be the person with the most votes. Yet, three times in America’s history, a president has been elected that did not receive the popular vote. This means that every vote is not equal and that the popular voice of the people was not heard, which generally is undemocratic.

Electors are not obligated to vote according to public will

While it is tradition that all electors vote in favor of the candidate supported by the majority of voters in a state, electors are not obligated by law to do so. Electors can switch their vote, for example, under pressure from a losing candidate, which would be a highly undemocratic result.

The electoral college disenfranchises minority party voters

In a predominantly Democratic state such as New York, there is little doubt that a Democratic nominee will win a majority vote and ensure that all 31 of the state’s electoral votes will go to the democratic nominee. This means that the minority Republican population in New York has not electoral voice and is, therefore, in effect disenfranchised.

The US electoral college is an appropriate federal-state-people power-sharing deal

The United States is not a pure, popular democracy. The US constitution limits power between various entities, including the people, the federal government, and state governments. The electoral college must be understood in the historical, constitutional context. While the United States is a democracy, a popular vote would only satisfy the interests of the federal government and the people; state-interests would be left out. The electoral college sufficiently incorporates the interests of states, while satisfactorily meeting the interests of the people and the federal government.

The electoral college forces candidates to campaign to the entire country

By upholding the interests of smaller states, particularly rural states with sparse populations, the Electoral College forces candidates to appeal to a wide, diverse audience across the country.

Rarely has the loser of the US popular vote won the electoral college

The fears of the electoral college surround instances in which the popular vote does not coincide with the electoral college results. But, these fears are exaggerated, principally because of the rarity of this occurring. This result has really only happened twice in American history, first in 1888 with Benjamin Harrison’s victory of Grover Cleveland, and then with the election of President Bush in 2000. The 1824 and 1876 election results in which this occurred cannot fairly be counted against the Electoral College mainly because the results were directed by voter fraud and partisan factionalism. Because it is so rare that the electoral college does not reflect the popular vote, it is hard to say that the electoral college is generally unrepresentative.

The electoral college also over represents smaller states. Because the electoral college votes are biased on population and there can only be 435 seats in the house set by law. The larger populated states therfore are underepresented as seats are given to states that have far less of a population. For instance california has 53 seats in the house and wyoming has only 3. Baised on populaition Claifrnia should have much more seats but the other states have to be represented as well. This disenfranchises larger areas.

Small states: Is the college unnecessary to protect small state interests?

Small state interests are protected in the Senate and need no further protection with an electoral college

The US Senate gives 2 representatives to every state in the senate, regardless of the differing sizes of those states. This system was designed specifically to protect the interests of small states. No further protections for small states in an electoral college is required.

Protecting vote equality is more important than protecting small state interests

In a democracy, it is of utmost importance that each citizen has an equal voice and that their vote be counted equally. This is more important than protecting the interests of small states in the union, as it is a more fundamental principle in a democracy, where the highest authority is the individual citizen, not the state.

The electoral college helps protect the interests of smaller states in the union

The current system provides for the protection of the rights of all 50 states, because it forces candidates to appeal to the voters in all parts of America. It is important to remember that America is not a centralized state but a federation of states. A nationwide vote tally could provide an incentive for a candidate to focus only on the most populous areas of the country, such as California, New York, or Texas, and ignore other areas such as Alaska, Rhode Island, or Maine. The electoral college is a natural consequence of the devolved, state-based government that Americans have always supported.

Campaigns: Does the electoral college distort campaigns?

The electoral college's "winner-takes-all" system causes campaigning only to swing states

Parties know that certain states will always vote one way eg Alaska always votes Republican, Massachusetts usually votes Democrat. Both parties generally spend less resources on campaigning in these ‘safe’ states, and pay more attention to the needs of electors in ‘swing’ states, such as Michigan and Florida, which determine the outcome of elections. This can mean that elections become less competitive as resources are concentrated on a smaller geographical area and smaller section of society.

There is always a focus in politics on campaigning in the undecided portion of the electorate, irrespective of there being an electoral college system or not:

As America is a large, diverse country, any system which encourages and rewards parties who appeal to a broad geographical range of areas is more likely to lead to a government which is in tune with the needs and values of most of society, as opposed to the UK, where very often the concerns of London and South-east England dominate parliament. The current system has encouraged administrations to ensure that representatives from many different states are included in the government. In any case, the shift of southern voters from the Democratic to the Republican Party in the past thirty years, and the movement of Californians in the opposite direction, shows that the system is not static and that states cannot be taken for granted.

Republican advantage?: Does the College favor Republicans?

The electoral college favors the Republican party:

Rural voters are more likely to vote Republican, while urban voters, obviously all grouped together in a small area are more likely to vote Democrat. Therefore, the Democrats can lay claim to fewer ‘safe’ states. This has meant that poor, inner-city electors are disproportionally disadvantaged.

Because big states with cities get more electoral votes, city-based Democrats generally receive proportional representation.

Because seats in the electoral college are allocated according to population, highly populated, urbanized states (with more Democrats) receive electoral votes (representation) proportional to their size. Democratic interests, in these states, are subsequently protected sufficiently.

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