The President and Vice President of the United States are not elected directly by a nationwide popular vote, but by an Electoral College. Is it fair?
Presidential elections 2016
The 58th United States presidential election on 8 November 2016 was won by the Republican candidate Donald Trump. Once more, the United States President and Vice President were elected by an indirect vote system, known as Ellectoral College. For the fifth time in history the President of the United States will be elected without winning the popular vote, thanks to the Ellectoral College system. How is this possible? Is it fair?
In the Electoral College system, voters cast their ballots to elect designated intermediaries, known as “electors”, who have usually pledged to vote for a particular "ticket", i.e. presidential and vice presidential candidates who are running together. There are currently 538 electors, representing the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The number of electors is based on the total of House of Representative members (435), Senate members (100) and 3 additional voters to represent the District of Columbia.
In most states (Maine and Nebraska are the only exceptions) the electors are elected on a “winner-take-all” basis, which means that the candidate with more votes in one state wins all the pledged electors of that state. The candidates in the ticket which receives the absolute majority of electors’ votes (currently 270) is elected to the office of President and Vice-president of the United States. Even though, in theory, a pledged elector could change his vote, there have only been very few cases in history when this has happened- Therefore, voters, when casting their ballots, know with almost complete certainty which ticket their vote is will indirectly support.
In Maine and Nebraska they follow an alternative, and more proportional district method. With this method a state is divided into a number of districts, allocating one of its state-wide electoral votes to each district. The winner of each district is awarded that district’s electoral vote, and the winner of the state-wide vote is then awarded the state’s remaining two electoral votes. The electors of each district may vote for different parties.
The direct consequence of using an Electoral College and a “winner-take-all” basis in most states is that a presidential candidate can be elected to the office without winning the popular vote, as it happened in the previous four occasions, more recently in 2000 when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore. Al Gore had received more popular vote than George W. Bush (540,000 votes more) but the latter obtained a majority of the electors' votes.
Electoral College pros and cons
There is an important debate on whether or not the Electoral College should be reformed or even suppressed. Let’s have a look at the many issues on this topic.
Cons of Electoral College
- A candidate could be elected without the popular vote. Not only it already happened five times, but in theory, a candidate could win the presidency with only 22% of the popular vote in a two-candidates race. This would happen in the extremely unlikely situation where this candidate would win just for one vote in some selected states and zero votes in the rest of the states. Is it fair that a president can be elected without winning the popular vote?
- Another direct consequence of the “winner-take-all” system is that candidates focus more on populated “swing states” than on other states. Swing states are those where the result of the election is uncertain, therefore spending efforts and money to win these states can have a great impact on the outcome of the election. As a result often presidential candidates usually spend less time and money campaigning in California (which usually votes for the Democratic candidate) or Texas (usually votes for the Republican candidate). But what about the issues of the people living in the ignored states?
- Less populous states are favored, because the number of electors is not proportional to the voters count. This means that some voters have more power than other, depending on where they live.
- Participation is discouraged, except in the swing states. Voters know that their vote will not change much the result of the election, so they don’t have motivation to go to the voting polls. For the 2016 presidential election, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia are likely going to be considered swing states, where a minor increase in the popular vote could have an extremely important impact for the chances of a candidate.
- Some US territories do not have electors and don’t participate in the presidential election, for example Guam or Puerto Rico.
- Finally, the “winner-take-all” basis favors a two parties system and decreases the importance of minor parties and representation.
Pros of Electoral College
- The system tends to represent more the diversity of the country. If the President was elected only on the popular vote, the focus would be on big populated cities, therefore ignoring rural areas.
- The Electoral College is also the reflection of the federal character of the United States. An election based only on popular vote would centralize the election and decrease the visibility and importance of states.
- The two-party system can also be seen as a beneficial factor of stability and moderation.
- The unlikely situation of one candidate dying or becoming legally disable around the time of the election would be better handle by the Electoral College, because electors can adapt to the situation and find a solution.
- Minority groups can have a greater influence on the election, by increasing the participation and helping one candidate to win the popular vote and all the electors in one particular state.
- Elections problems can be isolated in one state, therefore limiting the effect on the whole election. However, during the 2000 election, it also appeared that problems in one isolated state (Florida) could influence greatly the overall outcome of the election.
- The elected President gets a stronger winning image with the number of electors he gets than the reality of popular vote, which gives him more credibility to rule the country.
What do you think? Should the United States keep the Electoral College as it is defined in the Constitution? Should it be abolished? Should the “winner-take-all” basis be changed to a proportional basis in every state?
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Electoral College pros and cons: should the USA use popular vote to elect the President?
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