Voters often question not only what the Electoral College is but also why it is. It seems to exist simply to amplify the margin of victory in the popular vote and is exclusively employed in presidential elections. Advocates of election reform wish to either do away with the Electoral College system completely and replace it with the direct popular vote or repair perceived defects in the existing system by implementing one of several Electoral College reform proposals. This discussion examines these proposals then offers a recommendation for the favored method to conduct future elections.
A system of direct elections would inherently create incentives for a candidate to campaign in small states. They would receive some electoral reward for their effort since even if a state were lost, the votes gained there would still count in a popular vote system. Even more importantly, “the financial calculus of election campaigns in a direct-election system might help level the playing field between large and small states. Large states have more voters, to be sure, but reaching these voters is a very expensive proposition since advertising rates are often astronomical. On the other hand, small states tend to have less expensive media markets. Thus, campaigns might find that for every dollar spent in a large-state media market, an equal number of voters might be reached for the same or a lesser amount of money in a small state” (Klinkner & McClellan, 2000).
Under the Direct Election plan, each voter would be eligible to directly cast a vote for the president; one person, one vote. The Electoral College would be eliminated. One Direct Election plan would require a majority vote for president with a national run-off, if necessary, between the top two candidates. Others have recommended establishing a minimum percentage (40 or 45 percent) for election. Critics of this plan make the case that campaigns would become much more expensive because all votes in each state are equal, and candidates would feel the need to campaign in every state. “Indeed, one has only to look to history or comparative governments to see how easily such a system could disintegrate into multi-candidate races, which would, in turn, devolve into a system of regular runoffs or fractious coalition governments” (Ross, 2004).
The National Bonus plan calls for amending the Electoral College to retain the advantage it gives to the two-party system while enhancing the power of the people. The popular winner of each state would be given an extra two electoral votes, resulting in a total of 102 electoral votes (including an extra two votes for the District of Columbia). “This plan would presumably preserve the power of the states to function as organic units while dispensing with the most undemocratic feature of the Electoral College, the tremendous weight given to small states” (Schlesinger, 1973). This ‘weighted’ Electoral College system would seemingly preserve conventional federalism while at the same time maintaining an enhanced parallel between the Electoral College and the direct popular vote.
The Proportional plan would eradicate the winner-take-all system for each state’s electoral vote and do away with the state’s electors. Each state would preserve its current number of electoral votes, but these votes would be divided in proportion to the division of the popular vote within each state. For example, if a candidate won 60 percent of the popular vote in a state, the candidate would receive 60 percent of that state’s electoral votes. Some proportional reforms also suggest the candidate with the most electoral votes would win the election. “Proponents of the proportional plan argue that this plan comes the closest of any of the other plans to electing the President and Vice President by popular vote while still preserving each state’s Electoral College strength” (Whitaker & Neale, 2001). Critics argue the plan would complicate the election process because third-party candidates would win more electoral votes, thus putting more elections into the hands of the House of Representatives. The opponents of the proportional plan argue that it could “undermine and eventually eliminate the present two-party system by making it easier for minor parties, new parties, and independent candidates to compete in the presidential elections by being able to win electoral votes without having to win statewide elections to do so. Further, opponents argue, the states would generally have less importance as units, since the winner-take-all aspect would be eliminated” (Whitaker & Neale, 2001).
The District plan would maintain the Electoral College, but each state would use its Congressional house districts as ‘elector’ districts. The candidate who receives the most votes in each district would win the electoral vote from the district. The candidate winning the most districts in the state would, in addition, receive two electoral votes. This plan would eliminate the winner-take-all system of the current Electoral College. The ‘house district’ plan would more accurately reflect the popular vote results for presidential candidates than the present Electoral College method. By keeping the Electoral College intact, the district plan would not deprive small or sparsely populated states of certain advantages under the present system. Each state would still be allocated at least three electoral votes, correlating to its two Senators and it’s one Representative, regardless of the size of the state’s population. Under this plan, critics contend, a person who wins the popular vote can still lose the election. “The district plan preserves the Electoral College method of electing the President and Vice President, with each state choosing a number of electors equal to the combined total of its Senate and House of Representatives delegations. Under the district plan, the presidential and vice-presidential candidates winning a simple majority of the electoral votes would be elected” (Huckabee, 2000).
Proposals to abolish the Electoral College have failed largely because alternatives appear more problematic than the current system. The Electoral College, though an antiquated and imperfect system, is not on the way out and most likely never will be. Even if 75 percent of both houses of Congress approved of a constitutional amendment, the state legislatures would not approve the change. The smaller populous states would feel left out of the process, and rightly so. Alterations of the current system are possible without the need for such overwhelming approval. Three states have done just that. The most plausible of these is the ‘house district’ or the ‘proportional’ plans. Neither disregards the Electoral College but allows for the vote to be distributed in a way to more accurately reflect the sentiments of the voting public. Candidates would still have to pay attention to the less populated states, and the integrity of the office would continue to be upheld through either of these systems. The presidential election reflects a delicate balance between national and federal conceptions of democracy. Whether Americans decide to keep, change or even eliminate the Electoral College, democracy itself is not at stake, only the question of how to channel and organize the popular will. The intent of this system was that the selection of a president is based solely on merit and without regard to the state of origin or political party by that state’s most informed and educated individuals. The fact that the Electoral College has performed its function for over 200 years and in over 50 presidential elections by ensuring that the president has both sufficient popular support to govern and that his popular support is sufficiently distributed throughout the country to enable him to govern effectively is a tribute to the genius of the Founding Fathers.
- Huckabee, David. “Memorandum: Presidential Election Returns by Congressional District 6, 23.” Congressional Research Service. 2000.
- Klinkner, Philip & McClellan, James. “Symposium – The Electoral College.” Insight on the News., 2000.
- Ross, Tara. “The Electoral College: Enlightened Democracy.” Legal Memorandum #15. 2004.
- Schlesinger, Arthur. The Imperial Presidency. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1973, pp. 483-84.
- Whitaker, L. Paige & Neale, Thomas H. “The Electoral College:
- An Overview and Analysis of Reform Proposals.” National Council for Science and the Environment, 2001.