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The members of the Electoral College on Monday cast their votes to affirm Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election, delivering a decisive blow to President Trump’s attempt to overturn the result. Despite the tally ending in their favor, some Democrats used the occasion to revive calls to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with a national popular vote.
Under the Electoral College system, Americans select their president in what is essentially a collection of 51 individual elections, one for each state plus Washington, D.C. States are allocated a share of the 538 electoral votes based on the number of representatives they have in Congress, which is itself tied to population.
Criticisms of the Electoral College are nothing new. Even some of the Founding Fathers who helped create it later sought to eliminate it. By one count there have been more than 700 attempts to reform or abolish the Electoral College over the years. The closest the effort has come was in 1969, when the House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment to switch to a direct popular vote. The bill died in the Senate, however, after being filibustered by a group of Southern senators.
Abolishing the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment, a prospect that appears far-fetched given the current partisan makeup in Washington. An effort to get around that limitation has gained some support recently. A total of 15 states and Washington have joined an agreement to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, but the pact won’t go into effect until states comprising 270 electoral votes sign on.
Why there’s debate
The primary argument for ditching the Electoral College is that deciding the presidency through a series of state elections inevitably gives more weight to the votes of people in a handful of swing states, making votes cast in solidly blue or red states essentially meaningless. This system can lead to a president being elected despite earning fewer votes than their opponent. That’s happened only five times in American history, but two of those occasions came in the past 20 years. Trump got nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016 but won the race thanks to narrow wins in a few critical states — a feat he was within striking distance of repeating this year despite Biden receiving 7 million more votes nationwide.
Eliminating the Electoral College would help avoid the post-election chaos seen in 2000, when the contest was decided by 537 votes in Florida after a drawn-out legal battle, supporters say. A popular vote would also protect U.S. democracy from a disgruntled president like Trump who seeks to change the outcome by flipping results in swing states, they say.
Others call for reforming the Electoral College, typically by changing the way states decide how to distribute their electors. Rather than a winner-take-all system in states, some argue that electors should be distributed based on the percentage of the vote each candidate wins. Another group says electoral votes should be decided by individual congressional districts. Either reform would ensure that every vote matters, supporters say.
Conservative opponents of changing the Electoral College, let alone abolishing it, say complaints come almost exclusively from Democrats who are seeking to tip the scales in their favor. Others say the current system ensures that smaller states aren’t ignored and prevents big cities from making decisions for rural parts of the country.
Complaints about the Electoral College are mostly partisan griping
“Those who are genuinely concerned about the future of American governance would be calling to strengthen institutions that provide political stability, not destroy them. But when your concerns about ‘American democracy’ are really just a euphemism for partisan power grabs, you end up making lots of sloppy arguments.” — David Harsanyi, Detroit News
The Electoral College protects liberty
“If the answer is ‘majority rules,’ why stop with the White House? Why not put the Bill of Rights up for popular vote? Then we could decide those ‘freedom of religion’ and ‘freedom of speech’ issues once and for all.” — John Kass, Chicago Tribune
Without the Electoral College, rural states would be ignored
“The Electoral College was created to give people in diverse states influence in selecting a national leader, so that leader would be beholden to the people of Iowa and not just to whatever is wanted in New York and Los Angeles.” — Dennis Clayson, Des Moines Register
Proposed replacements have their own set of shortcomings
“It would be far more complicated than commonly supposed to design and implement a valid direct presidential election, even after the pandemic recedes. A constitutional amendment that eliminated the electoral college but left state-controlled electoral machinery in charge of a direct election would perpetuate existing state-by-state legal variations, and possibly create unintended or unforeseen incentives to accentuate or manipulate them.” — Charles Lane, Washington Post
States’ electors should be distributed proportionally
“The logic of the Electoral College has compelled all but two states to allocate their electors on a winner-take-all basis. Winner-take-all math is the reason swing states dominate presidential campaigns and the reason second-place popular-vote finishers can win if they eke out victories in enough states.” — Kevin Johnson, Governing
Increasing the size of the Electoral College would make the system more fair
“Another reform that could shake up although not replace the Electoral College would be expanding the House of Representatives. ... Doubling or tripling the House membership seems like a reasonable reform that could be achieved without a constitutional amendment. Given that it would further diminish the voting power of smaller states in the Electoral College, it might force some movement toward a popular vote.” — Justin Fox, Bloomberg
The 2-party system and the Electoral College are incompatible
“We can keep the Electoral College — but only if the U.S. gets rid of political parties. We can’t have both.” — Hayes Brown, MSNBC
The Electoral College creates the opportunity for elections to be stolen
“The fact that all it took was few public officials devoid of any respect for democracy to potentially overrule an entire state’s vote should be added to the list of reasons to reform the Electoral College.” — Editorial, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
A popular vote would ensure the president represents the whole country
“The presidency is the one and only elected office whose occupant represents all the American people. His or her election should be a collective statement of the entire citizenry as Americans rather than residents of specific states.” — Joseph J. Ellis, Los Angeles Times
A popular vote would improve public faith in elections
“Eliminating the Electoral College would not restore the shaken faith of millions of Americans in our democracy and our system of government. But it is an obvious place to start.” — Douglas Kriner, The Hill
The Electoral College makes the racial divide worse
“The electoral college exacerbates racial privilege by allowing predominantly White and largely homogenous states an outsized say over the democratic future of a country that is increasingly multiracial, multicultural and multiethnic.” — Peniel E. Joseph, CNN
The Electoral College undermines the principle of equal representation
“When people’s votes are treated as unequal, it’s a short jump to treating people as unequal. Put another way, it’s not enough to say that we’re all equal before the law; we also must be able to have an equal say in the choice of the representatives who make and enforce the laws.” — Jesse Wegman, New York Times
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