Should The Electoral College Be Abolished

In 1787, the Framers devised a voting system which was, in the words of Alexander Hamilton: “If not perfect, then at least excellent”.In this system, called the Electoral College, voters vote for electors who then cast their votes in a secret ballot on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. The number of electoral votes a state has is determined by the size of its congressional delegation, and an additional 3 electoral votes go to the District of Columbia, summing up to 538 electoral votes overall.

But 233 years have passed since the Electoral College was initially established, and many aspects of society have changed during this time. It is no wonder, then, that there are calls for the abolition of this American institution. However, the Electoral College is an institution as controversial as it is unique, and in this essay I will examine some of the key beliefs of both supporters and opposers of this electoral system, before looking into some alternative voting systems and finally reaching an answer to the title of the essay.

Firstly, let us dissect the aims of the Framers of the Constitution in devising the Electoral College.

The intellect of the Framers is often given as an argument for the Electoral College (EC). But what many presenting this argument may not know is that the fundamental reason why the Framers crafted this system was to prevent the tyranny of the majority. In Hamilton’s eyes, the appointment of electors, “most capable” men of “discernment and information”, prevented rash decisions being made by the uneducated populace. Indeed, in the context of the 18th century, this argument holds some weight: information and news hardly travelled quickly, and only 60% of American citizens could read. Today, however, the story is very different. We are constantly bombarded with news stories and information does most certainly travel quickly. In this aspect, then, the need to have distinguished individuals with up-to-date information of the election voting for President has completely disappeared in the 21st century.

In fact, some could argue that the appointment of electors to decide who becomes president is thoroughly undemocratic. Whilst electors are expected to convey the public vote in the December election, they are not required to by the U.S. Constitution, and becoming a so-called “faithless elector” is only criminalised in 27 states. The result of the 2016 election, in which Hillary Clinton lost the electoral vote to Donald Trump by 42% to 56.5%, but won the popular vote by nearly 3 million, sparked outrage and led to the questioning of the legitimacy of the EC, something I will explore later on. Subsequently, there was significant pressure applied on electors to become “Hamilton electors” and use their judgment to defy the popular vote of their state and elect who they believed would run the country most effectively. In the 2016 election there were, in fact, 7 “faithless electors”, and whilst this was not enough to change the overall result of the election, it did mean that thousands of voters were disenfranchised. But many people remain unaware of this, as suggested by the fact that 63% of Americans believe the Electoral College to be a school, and, as the scholar Hannah Piktin suggested, if the public believe they are being represented, then they are being represented. So, one could argue that whilst the system of having electors is undemocratic, it is at least unlikely to decentivise voters from making their voices heard.

Nevertheless, the system of having electors could put America at risk of autocracy. As Patrick Henry put it: “I will submit to your recollection, whether liberty has been destroyed most often by the licentiousness of the people, or by the tyranny of rulers?” It would, unfortunately, be all too easy for a tyrannical leader to bribe a significant number of electors to become so-called “Hamilton electors” and betray the popular vote, something I am sure the Framers did not intend but have legally left possible.

Secondly, the electoral college has the potential to be riddled with partisan, spacial, and demographic bias. In fact, it was designed to be so, as the Framers wanted to make sure that smaller states were not overlooked by politicians, so as to maintain a federal America. Alaska, Wyoming and Vermont account for 0.6% of federal votes, but only 0.2% of the national population. Also, if a deciding vote must be cast by the House of Representatives, then the decision is disproportionately led by smaller states. Supporters of the electoral college cite this as another reason why the electoral college should not be abolished, yet politicians rarely bother visiting these states. And in 1968, Banzhaf found that voter power rises roughly as the inverse of the square root of the size of the population, meaning that a voter in New York had 3.312x more ability to influence the outcome of a presidential election than a voter in the least influential state. Other articles have found that the margin of victory and voter turnout in a state can influence a voter’s relative voting power. So, rural citizens may not have a higher relative voting power than urban citizens, but with reference to Pitkin’s theories on symbolic representation, if this is perceived to be true then it could deter inhabitants of largely populated states from voting, leaving them feel that their vote “doesn’t count”.

However, the electoral college does not actually seem to be biased partisanly: Relative voter power from each party oscillates mildly, within a 5% range. Nevertheless, due to Trump’s benefit from the electoral college in the 2016 election, just 19% of Republicans support electing the President through a popular vote.

So, whilst the 2016 election ‘misfire’ understandably evoked questions about the electoral college’s legitimacy, these questions seemed to come disproportionately from Democrats. But regardless of partisan bias, it is comprehendible why a dissonance between the popular vote result and that of the electoral college may cause a few furrowed eyebrows. And this is increasingly not a rare occurrence - 2 so-called ‘misfire’ elections have occurred in the 21st century. Whilst plebiscites are historically tools of dictatorships rather than democracies, the National Popular Vote (NPV) is certainly not the only alternative to the Electoral Vote (EV) - Maine and Nebraska assign their votes congressional district by congressional district by proportional representation - and regardless of this, questions of what it means to live in a democracy understandably arise when the will of the people is ultimately not what decides the presidency. When people become aware of the incongruity between the popular and electoral vote, this could evoke feelings of powerlessness and discourage political activity, especially amongst the party that lost the EV.

Due to the electoral college, political campaigning is often limited to a select number of “battleground” swing states: Ohio, Florida and an estimated nine more. In the 2016 election, 71 campaigning events were scheduled in Florida in total, but no events were scheduled in 25 states. So, the Framers’ wish to overcome America’s internal divisions by forcing candidates to gather a diverse base of support simply hasn’t come into fruition. In fact, 94% of all campaigning occurred in less than a quarter of the country. As a result, the voters in “contended” states are 1 to 2 percent more likely to vote than those in non-contended states, due to campaigns highlighting their “civic duty” to do so. So, whilst one electoral vote may count for less people in Wyoming than it does in Florida, it does not mean that people feel empowered or motivated politically.

The electoral college also fails to represent a wide range of political opinions. Due to the First Past the Post system in 48 states, independent candidates often fail to get any EVs at all. Some argue that this is actually a good thing, as it means that politics are kept moderate and parties with possibly extreme and offensive views are not able to gain power. One could question the democracy of quieting any opinions, but the Electoral College certainly helps to compound the stability and efficiency of the political system. In Spain, proportional representation of political parties meant that the country has not had a government for almost a year. Framer James Madison thought that if there was diversity in a country’s politics, it would prevent dangerous, liberty-oppressing majorities from forming. But America’s politics today are not diverse, and one could argue that that is a positive thing.

Overall, although I recognise the logic of the Electoral College, I believe that it should be abolished. It is an antiquated institution with roots in the protection of pro-slavery states, and it has little place in 21st century America. And, most importantly, it is fundamentally anti-democratic. Over time, it has become more and more democratic, as amendments have been added to allow African Americans and women to vote. But whilst one person’s vote counts more than another’s, it can never call itself a democratic institution. As Jean Jacques Rousseau put it: “The legitimacy of the state as an embodiment of the people is dependent on an equal voice for all of those involved”.

05 January 2023
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