The Electoral College was established by Article II Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. It was amended after the 1800 election when the two candidates, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson each received the same number of votes. The House of Representative resolved the tie by voting for Jefferson and then offered the 12th Amendment, which fine-tuned the original concept.
The result was the current system, which awards each state the number of electors equal to the number of U.S. Senators (two in each state) plus the number of Representatives in each state, which varies according to the population.
538 Electors decide the presidency
There are a total of 538 electors, which includes three who represent Washington D.C. The only purpose of the Electoral College is to elect the President and Vice President every four years. On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the electors meet in their respective states and cast their vote. The votes are sealed and then sent to the president of the Senate who, on January 6 opens and reads the votes before both houses of Congress.
OK, that’s how it works. The larger question is why we still elect our President through the Electoral College. The Electoral College was created during the Constitutional Convention as a compromise between those who wanted Congress to elect the President and those who wanted the President selected by popular vote.
The Electoral College system has two fundamental flaws
I believe the existing system has two fundamental – I wish I could say fatal – flaws. One is that it violates the one person, one vote rule, which should be the proper rule of a modern democracy, because the addition of two electors to each state for its senators produces significant distortions in how much our individual vote is worth from state to state. The second problem is the whole battleground state issue.
—Jack Rakove, Stanford Pulitzer Prize-winning historian
If you ask most folks if their vote in a presidential election should be equal to their friends living in a different state, they would say ‘yes.’ However, the reality is that by giving each state two electors tied to the number of U.S. Senators in each state, the Electoral College creates a significant distortion to the one person one vote concept.
Of the 50 states, 40 or more are almost set in stone politically. Just seven are true swing states.
— Larry Sabato- University of Virginia Institute of Politics
Both candidates will mostly ignore the 40 plus states that are not considered ‘battleground states’ during the campaign. Expending resources in a state like California, which is considered a safe Democratic state or in Texas, which is a safe Republican state, makes no sense. Individual voters in the 40 states that are already deemed a Red or Blue state are largely disenfranchised by the existing system.
Direct vs. indirect election
In the United States, the Office of the President is the only one that is elected indirectly. In all other elections, such as Congress, governors, and local official we use the direct election concept where the person that gets a simple majority of the votes is the winner.
The good folks in Abkhazia select both their head of state and members of the upper and lower house by direct election, as do the people living in Zimbabwe. In fact, there are only two other countries in the world that utilize an Electoral College to elect their head of state, India and Suriname. In all other countries the head of state is either selected by a direct vote of the people, is a Monarchy, or chosen by Parliament. The most common choice is using a direct election.
There have been four Presidents who came in second in the popular vote
Many people believe that the United States should change its election process so that the President is chosen by a direct popular vote of the people. Four times in our history, a President has been elected who did not win the popular vote:
• In 1824 when John Quincy Adams came in second to Andrew Jackson in both the popular vote and the Electoral College, but was elected by the House of Representatives after Jackson failed to reach a majority in the Electoral College.
• In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes won the election in the Electoral College, but was second in the popular vote by some 250,000 ballots.
• In 1888, Benjamin Harrison received 233 electoral votes to Grover Cleveland’s 168, but trailed Cleveland in the popular vote by more than 90,000 votes.
• In 2000, George Bush won the electoral vote, 271 to 266, but Al Gore had 540,000 more popular votes.
Is there a better way?
Many argue that American democracy would be better served by changing to a system that selected our President based on whoever received the most popular votes.
There is an organization called National Popular Vote (NPV) that advocates for maintaining the Electoral College, but instituting a requirement that each state commit to awarding its electoral votes to the winner of the overall popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The NPV proposal does not require a Constitutional Amendment, only the approval of enough state legislatures to agree to award a total of 270 electoral votes to the overall winner of the popular vote. To date, eleven states have approved the legislation. However, this plan does not address the fundamental deficiencies in the Electoral College system that violates the “one person, one vote” principal, nor would it completely eliminate the focus on battleground states.
The more radical approach, which would require an Amendment to the Constitution, would be to eliminate the Electoral College and move to a direct popular vote to elect the President. According to polls, 62% of Americans are in favor of the popular vote system. Proponents argue that it would be a purer form of democracy that would adhere to the ‘one person one vote’ concept and would force candidates to make their case to every voter in every state, not just focus on the battleground states. Opponents argue that it would favor the larger states over smaller states and diminished state rights. Fifty six percent of the population lives in the eleven most populous states.
Nearly 11 years after the 2000 presidential election brought the idiosyncrasies of the United States' Electoral College into full view, 62% of Americans say they would amend the U.S. Constitution to replace that system for electing presidents with a popular vote system. Barely a third, 35%, say they would keep the Electoral College.
— Gallup Poll
The reality is that a Constitutional Amendment, which would require the approval of three-fourths of the states to be ratified, would be extremely difficult to accomplish. Smaller states would be unwilling to give up their position of power and influence. For example, of the seven key battleground states that Politico identifies as key to winning the 2016 election, four of them are small states with less than ten electoral votes (Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, and New Hampshire.) It is unlikely these four states would vote to ratify a Constitutional change that would reduce their importance.
Moving to a direct national vote for President has many attractions, but the road to ratification would be a tough one to manage. Likewise, there are some provisions to like about the National Popular Vote movement, but there are some significant downsides and even if it is approved by the number of states needed to guarantee the majority of the votes in the Electoral College, it would almost certainly face a series of legal challenges.
The bottom line is that America will probably stick with the Electoral College indirect voting system for the foreseeable future.