America needs the Electoral College

Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke speaks to students at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., Sunday, April 14, 2019. O'Rourke is wrapping up a three-day tour of South Carolina, which holds the first presidential primary voting in the South. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke speaks to students at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., Sunday, April 14, 2019. O'Rourke is wrapping up a three-day tour of South Carolina, which holds the first presidential primary voting in the South. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Ever since the last presidential election, calls to end the Electoral College have been intensifying. Opponents claim it is undemocratic and unworkable. However, the Electoral College is neither unworkable nor archaic compared to how other advanced republics determine their head of government. In fact, the Electoral College is an ideal system for the United States. The fact that so few developed countries rely on a national popular vote system to elect their heads of government is testament to the chaos that such a method creates. 

Proponents of a national popular vote for electing the President claim that the Electoral College unjustly gives smaller states more representation than they deserve and causes candidates to ignore most of the country to focus on winning “swing states” that will likely determine the election. Finally, they also point to how it is entirely possible for the candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election because they failed to get 270 electoral votes. All of these factors, opponents say, make the system undemocratic, unrepresentative and unfair. As a result, several candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke among them, have expressed interest in the idea of abolishing the Electoral College. Furthermore, when the Democratic Party gained control of the House last year, they introduced constitutional amendments that would do away with the existing system. 

But are their grievances legitimate? In answering this question, it’s smart to look at how other advanced republics/democracies elect their leaders, for they provide us with a guide to our own course of action. Upon closer examination, it turns out that indirectly choosing the head of government is actually quite common. Most of the world’s advanced elected governments are parliamentary, meaning they have a prime minister who is chosen not by a popular election but by the number of seats a party wins in parliament. In many of these systems, it is entirely possible for the Prime Minister to come from the party that did not win a majority of votes cast or even a majority of the seats won.  Some countries have tried to prevent these sorts of outcomes by having some seats elected at large based on the proportion of the nationwide popular vote, or by replacing first-past-the-post voting with ranked-choice voting. But in either of these cases, new problems arise. When politicians try to make election outcomes absolutely proportional, the result isn’t that the will of the people is better represented. Instead, it just becomes more fractured. Take for example a country like the Netherlands, which uses proportional voting and, as a result, has thirteen political parties with seats in parliament. The largest party, led by the Prime Minister, won a mere 21.3 percent of the vote in the last election! Can you really say that a system where the leader of the country was not supported by 78.7 percent of the people is representative? Examples like this illustrate that there are inherent problems in representing the exact preferences of the people in a country with millions of inhabitants. People think very differently, and in a republic, compromise is key. Electoral systems, like first-past-the-post parliamentary elections or the Electoral College are useful because they encourage people to coalesce around two or three major parties instead of a dozen.  

Thus, the Electoral College is an excellent system for a federal republic like the United States. Proponents of its abolishment fail to consider that we are one of the largest nations on earth, with high levels of ethnic, geographical, economic and ideological diversity. If we had a popular vote system, candidates would be encouraged to pit groups of people against each other in order to win the election. If you don’t need a majority to win, the best strategy is to encourage voter turnout among the base, and often this is done by preying upon the prejudices and fears your base has about other groups. What our current system does so well is that it mitigates this problem by forcing candidates to build coalitions across the country.  

Opponents of the Electoral College might scoff at this remark and point to how elections often come down to how a few swing states vote instead of the whole country. But what they fail to realize is that the reason most states aren’t focused on during the election isn’t because their needs are ignored, but because they are already a part of a candidate’s coalition. In other words, the system is doing its job, because the vast majority of the states are already satisfied with one of the major candidates right from the get go.  

Finally, the Electoral College has a few more advantages that arise specifically because our nation is so large. First, a state by state race provides focus and helps candidates with fewer resources exert more influence than they otherwise could. In other words, if you think our politics is dominated by money now, it will only get worse without the electoral college. Secondly, a state by state race limits the impact of voter fraud because no state has an incentive to make its voting standards particularly lax in order to exert more influence. If we just had a popular vote, then every part of the country would be engaged in a race to the bottom to maximize the ballots it casts and get its preferred candidate elected. Furthermore, when voter fraud does occur, it’s easier to resolve because it can be isolated to one or two states instead of the whole country.

The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing when they wrote the Constitution, and they were particularly adamant about how we elected the President. Fifty-eight elections later, we are still using the Electoral College because it works. It encourages coalition building, limits the impact of fraud and can guide our country through divisive times. Furthermore, we see that other advanced countries that haven’t obsessed over the nationwide popular vote have had similar success. Meanwhile, countries that have tried to achieve outcomes perfectly proportional to the popular vote often see incredibly fractured governments. In short, I encourage skeptics of the Electoral College to look at how the system has benefitted the U.S., and how systems that obsess over the national popular vote tend to fail the countries that adopt them. Hopefully, they will come back with a different point of view – the stability of our republic might just depend on it. 


Jacob Marie is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at jacob.marie@uconn.edu.