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Commentary

Electoral College Is a Modern-Day Travesty for the World’s Greatest Democracy



Most Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, but Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. It’s the second time in the last 16 years, in a country purporting to be the world’s greatest democracy, that a significant oddity has occurred: the triumph of a majority for one candidate in the obsolete electoral college vote over a majority for different one in the popular vote. Before President-elect Trump starts in on his policy agenda, he should push for an amendment to the Constitution to eliminate the electoral college and choose the president based on the national popular vote. Since he and his party derived advantage from the existing system, such a proposal could be powerful as a means to reform the unfair electoral process.

Despite learning in school about the electoral college vote, most Americans are still uncertain about what it is and how it relates to the popular vote. Nowadays, however, intuitively the overwhelming majority does believe that the person who wins the most votes from voters should win the election and that no person’s vote should count more than another’s. Thus, Americans were perplexed in the 2000 and 2016 elections why this didn’t happen, but most passively accept the system as it is.

In the wake of the 2016 election, the American media has open distain for the “usual” proposals to eliminate the electoral college—perhaps because the U.S. Constitution is so hard to amend. Yet because America is so evenly divided politically now, such majority electoral college/majority popular vote splits are likely to occur more frequently; we have already had two in this young century, equaling the total for the entire 19th century (we had none in the 20th century).

The problem is that in 1787, when the U.S. Constitution’s framers created the document, they had a low opinion of popular democracy, fearing that it would become impassioned “mob rule.” To guard against this threat, they allowed the public some participation in the new system but felt that the country was too vast, and communication and transportation means too slow and unreliable, for the people to be sufficiently informed to elect a president for the entire country. They thus created an electoral college of “experts” who would elect the president instead of the people.

In fact, so the states would have a role in the election of the nation’s president, the framers allowed them to choose the electors in any manner that they desired. Originally, in most cases, the “experts” in the state legislatures picked the “experts” in the electoral college. Each state got to choose a number of electors equal to the number of its delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives (based on a state’s population relative to other states) plus two (the number of senators from each state). Since the framers did not foresee the creation of political parties that could mobilize voters nationally, they believed that regional candidates would not be able to get a majority in the electoral college—thus requiring yet another group of “experts” in the U.S. House of Representatives to choose the president. They believed that this latter method would be the most typical way of choosing the chief executive, but it happened that way only two times at the beginning of the nation’s history.

By the mid-1800s, the people began demanding more voice in their government, turning the connotation of “democracy” from bad to good. Transportation and communication also began to get better, thus increasing the chances that a candidate could get a majority nationally in the popular vote or electoral college. More and more states began allowing voters to directly elect the electors from x or y political party, which is really what the voters, unbeknownst to them, are doing today when they step into the voting booth today. State legislatures bowed out of the selection process for electors.

Proponents of retaining the electoral college talk about preserving the republic (representative government) enshrined in the Constitution, as opposed to popular democracy, or giving the states a role in the presidential election. Yet the 18th century electoral college concept no longer works as the framers had envisioned it—as a back-up for the House of Representatives electing the president, with electors chosen by state legislatures—and now merely distorts the national popular vote. Forty-eight out of the fifty states plus the District of Columbia allow the winner of the popular vote in their jurisdiction to take all the state’s electoral votes. Also, smaller, rural states are excessively represented in the electoral college at the expense of more populous states with big urban areas. For example, much like the electoral college expanded the political power of smaller rural slave states before the Civil War, in the 2016 election, each voter in Wyoming (the least populous state) had more than double the voting power in the electoral college as a voter in California (the most populous state). This violates the principle of “one person, one vote.”

Proponents of retaining the electoral college want the states to have a role in the presidential election, but nowadays states—instead of letting their “experts” pick the president— automatically take their popular vote and feed it through the distorting electoral college filter, which merely perverts the national popular vote.

Even Republicans, who won the election fair and square under the current system but nevertheless benefited from such distortions in this election cycle, had appropriately trashed the electoral college in prior times. In 2012, President-elect Donald Trump had said that the “phoney [sic] electoral college” was “a disaster for a democracy.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Ben Carson, both Trump supporters, have also questioned the need for an electoral college.

Because tricks like getting the most populous states to assign all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote are politically fragile, even before President-elect Trump starts in on his policy agenda, he should propose a constitutional amendment that eliminates the electoral college and chooses the president based on the national popular vote. Because he and his party benefited from the existing system in 2016, such a long-overdue proposal would likely make a powerful impact.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.


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  • MyGovCost.org
  • FDAReview.org
  • OnPower.org
  • elindependent.org