This article is one chapter in the Elections series on this site, the only non-climate change politics/policy series.
Completely abolishing the Electoral College—and moving to a national popular vote—isn’t consistent with the federalist design of the U.S. government. However, given the pretty serious issues with how we choose our president, there are a handful of possible reforms.
What’s Wrong with the Electoral College
Fundamentally, the Electoral College is problematic because it doesn’t ensure that the American people’s choice for leader of the executive branch reflects the popular will—i.e., a candidate can win the electoral vote majority while losing the popular vote, which has now happened twice (2000, 2016) in the last five presidential elections.
This happens through two ways. Since each state’s electoral vote total doesn’t quite reflect its population, it makes voters in certain states more influential than voters in other states, like how Wyoming voters have 3.18 more voting power than the average American. Second, because of the “winner-take-all” nature of winning a state’s electoral votes and lack of “swingy-ness” in most states (only 15 states had 9% points between Trump and Clinton), voters in states like Texas (always red) and California (always blue) have many voters that simply don’t affect the national electoral vote outcome.
Not to mention that white voters have a disproportionate voting impact compared to racial and ethnic minorities in the Electoral College, and that candidates prioritize interests of certain states (swing states) than others while campaigning.
What’s Right with the Electoral College
The United States is both (A) a union of fifty semi-autonomous states and (B) one governed territory segmented into fifty subnational regions. Both the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College reflect that. The Senate guarantees that each state has the same representation in the upper legislative chamber—regardless of population differences—so, similar to the Electoral College, the voting impacts of citizens in different states have different eventual impacts on legislative decision-making.
It’s important to mention that the president does have different duties than members of Congress. While senators and representatives spend the bulk of their time working toward legislative solutions to problems alongside their colleagues in Congress, the president is primarily leading the executive branch of agencies that implement laws, in addition to making foreign policy decisions (and signing or vetoing legislation from Congress). With all this in mind, our Constitution has dictated that both the president and members of Congress are to be elected partially by direct popular vote, and partially through the representation of semi-autonomous states.
Proponents of the Electoral College favor that to win the presidency, a candidate needs to win a bunch of states, not just win major metro areas in, say, ten states—and therefore represent the interests of more parts of the U.S. and not just the political will of the “urban voter” in a small number of cities. This does make sense, given the federalist nature of the U.S government.
This argument, though, carries more weight than it should in this discourse. Worrying that the “urban voter” is monolithic is certainly untrue, as cities are far more diverse, racially and socioeconomically, than states as a whole.
Ways to Reform—But Not Abolish—the Electoral College
So, the Electoral College doesn’t allow everyone’s vote to count in the same way. That’s rough. But given the federalist framework of the U.S. government, directly electing the president via a national popular vote wouldn’t make complete sense, either.
Establishing a national popular vote in the U.S. Constitution would require a constitutional amendment. But, states can also individually decide how to assign their electoral votes to the winner, which is why the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact campaign is working to get state legislatures to decide to give all of their state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, effectively creating a national popular vote, where the candidate who receives the most votes across the U.S. wins the presidency.
A direct popular vote election is the most extreme of reforms—although likely the most intuitive to voters—running from federalism toward direct democracy. There are options in between, though. Both Maine and Nebraska interestingly split their electoral votes: the candidate to gain the most votes in each congressional district wins the electoral vote per district, and the overall popular vote winner in the state gains the remaining two electoral votes. This seems like a fine middle ground, but this system actually allows for a candidate to lose the national popular vote but win the electoral vote by an even larger discrepancy than under the current rules. (If every state had this policy in 2012, Mitt Romney would’ve won the electoral vote, despite losing the popular vote by more than Donald Trump in 2016 and George W. Bush in 2000).
It would be possible to simply eliminate the “winner-take-all” nature of winning electoral votes per state, and instead award electoral votes to a given candidate based on the percentage of popular votes in each state. I believe this is the best middle ground solution. It still gives voters in certain states more influence than those in other states (since electoral votes per state would remain the same, giving Wyoming voters a relatively super high vote impact), but it allows smaller states more power and therefore retains some aspect of federalism—while making all states relevant, instead of a small number of swing states.
Another more experimental reform would keep the winner-take-all policy for winning all of any given state’s electoral votes, but to solve the problem of certain voters having more power than others, differently apportion electoral votes than they currently are, by creating a rule that says no voter in a state can have, say, 2x or 2.5x (for small states) more impact than a voter in another (big) state, giving relatively more to big states and fewer to small states.
Unfortunately, any reforms to U.S. elections are fighting uphill battles, since the current rules inherently benefit one party over the other. Given more Republican support in smaller states, the Electoral College benefits them over Democrats (seen through Republicans Donald Trump and George W. Bush winning more electoral votes than their opponents while losing the popular vote).
So even though the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has achieved the support of 11 states (totaling 165 electoral votes)—a significant amount when the campaign only needs to total 270 electoral votes to effectively create a national popular vote—all states to sign on so far are quite liberal, so 12–16 more states would need to sign on, and of course, they’re all more ideologically moderate, making it less feasible to get them to agree.
Overall, (A) the fact that a voter in one state has about 4x more influence in choosing the president than a voter in another state, plus (B) the fact that chunks of voters in most states don’t have an impact on the electoral vote outcome creates a serious injustice in the Electoral College process of choosing a president.
Since the U.S. Senate also distorts the directness of our democracy, to completely transition to a national popular vote to select the president would be inconsistent with the values of American federal political representation. So unless we radically alter our U.S. government’s institutional design, we should aim for less extreme reforms to the Electoral College, which can still chip away at the major issues facing us.