Should the Electoral College be reformed or abolished?
Question: There have, in its 200 year history, been a number of critics and proposed reforms to the Electoral College system - most of them trying to eliminate it. But there are also staunch defenders of the Electoral College who, though perhaps less vocal than its critics, offer very powerful arguments in its favor. What follows are arguments both against and for the current system.
Arguments Against the Electoral College
Opponents of the Electoral College are disturbed by the possibility of electing a minority president (a President elected without more than 50% of the vote). These concerns are not entirely unfounded since there are three ways in which that could happen, and due to the fact it actually has happened in history. One way in which a minority president could be elected is if the country were so deeply divided politically that three or more presidential candidates split the electoral votes among them such that no one obtained the necessary majority. Under this scenario, the House of Representatives would choose the President, taking the election out of the hands of the people. This situation occurred in 1824.
A second way in which a minority president could take office is if, as in 1888 and most recently 2000, one candidate's popular support were heavily concentrated in a few States while the other candidate maintained a slim popular lead in enough States to win the needed majority of the Electoral College. In this scenario, the candidate with the most POPULAR votes actually loses, something we certainly want to avoid. A third way of electing a minority president is if a third party or candidate, however small, drew enough votes from the top two that no one received over 50% of the national popular total. Far from being unusual, this sort of thing has, in fact, happened 15 times including (in this century) Wilson in both 1912 and 1916, Truman in 1948, Kennedy in 1960, and Nixon in 1968. In all of these above scenarios, the person taking office is not favored by over HALF our country, is this a system we want to keep?
Another weakness of the Electoral College is the risk of so-called "faithless" Electors. A "faithless Elector" is one who is pledged to vote for his party's candidate for president but nevertheless votes for another candidate. There have been 7 such Electors in this century and as recently as 1988 when a Democrat Elector in the State of West Virginia cast his votes for Lloyd Bensen for president and Michael Dukakis for vice president instead of the other way around. Although faithless electors have never changed the outcome of an election, the fact remains that it is a possibility under the current system.
A third weakness of the electoral college is the fact that it depresses voter turnout. Since each State is entitled to the same number of electoral votes regardless of voter turnout, there is no incentive in the States to encourage voter participation. Due to the fact the system is winner-take-all, in states where a candidate has a large lead, there seemingly is no real purpose in voting, as narrowing that lead does not change the overall outcome of the election. This also leads to situations where states where candidates have large leads are often virtually ignored by candidates leading up to the November Presidential election. Conversely, other states, where elections are close, are visited often, giving these states too much power in deciding the outcome.
Finally, some opponents of the Electoral College point out, quite correctly, its failure to accurately reflect the national popular will in at least two respects. First, the distribution of Electoral votes in the College tends to over-represent people in rural States. This is because the number of Electors for each State is determined by the number of members it has in the House (which more or less reflects the State's population size) plus the number of members it has in the Senate (which is always two regardless of the State's population). The result is that in 1988, for example, the combined voting age population (3,119,000) of the seven least populous jurisdiction of Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming carried the same voting strength in the Electoral College (21 Electoral votes) as the 9,614,000 persons of voting age in the State of Florida. Each Floridian's potential vote, then, carried about one third the weight of a potential vote in the other States listed.
A second way in which the Electoral College fails to accurately reflect the national popular will stems primarily from the winner-take-all mechanism whereby the presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes in the State wins all the Electoral votes of that State. One effect of this mechanism is to make it extremely difficult for third party or independent candidates ever to make much of a showing in the Electoral College. If, for example, a third party or independent candidate were to win the support of even as many as 25% of the voters nationwide, he might still end up with no Electoral College votes at all!. For these reasons, the Electoral College should absolutely be abolished, or at the very least, altered.