More certain than the results of last night’s presidential election is the guarantee many partisans and armchair pundits will amp up calls to abolish the electoral college. According to a recent Gallup poll, more than 60% of Americans are in favor of ditching the complex system outlined in Article II of the U.S. Constitution, favoring instead a direct popular vote.
That conclusion is not surprising, at least on the surface. After all, in a democracy, shouldn’t the person with the most votes win the election? Suspicions about the fairness and legitimacy of elections are stirred up when popular votes and electoral votes produce different outcomes—think Gore v. Bush in 2000, Clinton v. Trump in 2016. Perhaps even this year’s contest between Biden and Trump.
What were the Founders thinking?
True, the electoral college complicates the election process in America and may seem counter-intuitive to the democratic notion of one person, one vote. But the Founders understood that pure majority-rule democracies tend to implode on themselves. So, they crafted a system of electors to guard against corruptible national elections, while still preserving a representative presidency.
In a nutshell, here’s how the electoral college works:
Each state is allotted one elector for every U.S. representative and senator it has. For example, California (the most populous state) has two senators and 53 representatives, so it has a total of 55 electoral votes. Virginia has 13, Wisconsin has 10, and so on. There are a total of 538 members of the electoral college, nominated at state party conventions.
On election day, when voters cast their ballots for presidential candidates, they actually are selecting a slate of presidential electors that represent that candidate. In all but two states, the slate that receives the most votes receives all of the electoral votes for that state. The candidate who receives a majority of electoral votes (270) is elected president.
The Washington Post offers this helpful graphic from the 2016 presidential election: How the electoral college works
COVID and the electoral college
COVID has added a layer of consternation as to the practicality of the electoral college in 2020 and may trigger calls to abolish the electoral college all together. Many scholars and politicians warned that the pandemic would send the election process into chaos due to an increase in voting by mail and absentee balloting. Indeed, counting of votes in several battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina and Georgia, have been problematic this year.
Part of the challenge rests in the timeline that accompanies the electoral college framework. Following the election, states have a finite amount of time in which to confirm election results without congressional challenge. This year’s so-called “safe-harbor” deadline is December 8. Six days later, the electoral college is scheduled to formally vote, and on January 6, Congress would officially tally the votes.
But with so many Americans opting for early in-person voting or absentee voting, this timeline may prove unrealistic. Back in August, Sen. Marco Rubio (FL-R) introduced legislation that would have extended the “safe-harbor” deadline to January 1, 2021 in order to “give states the flexibility to provide local election officials additional time to count each and every vote.” No doubt election officials today are wishing Rubio’s bill had passed, but instead it stalled in Committee.
Why do we do it this way?
A move to abolish the electoral college would require the heavy lift of a Constitutional amendment. And though a straight popular vote might seem attractive and simpler, the Founders understood the electoral system was a prudent measure that would offer important protections.
“The electoral college creates a strong gravitational pull in the direction of a two-party rather than multi-party system,” says Robert G. Kaufman, author and professor of public policy at Pepperdine University. “It forces both parties to develop broad-based coalitions, appealing to a wider constituency rather than a multi-party system with run-offs.”
Likewise, Dr. Kaufman points to the electoral college as a bulwark to the problem of faction that James Madison rightly identified as the gravest danger to the open society. “The electoral college is not anti-majoritarian,” he notes. “Rather, it gives the major parties an added incentive to achieve a certain type of majority, taking into account all regions of the country rather than just one or two of the most populated regions, slighting the rest.”
In brief, the Founders designed the electoral college to protect against the tyranny of the majority, encourage coalition building, and discourage voter fraud.
Here’s a quick and helpful video that further explains the wisdom of the Founders and the value of the electoral college for ensuring fair and representative elections: