What Is The Electoral College In America And Why Is It Growing Increasingly Unpopular?

What Is The Electoral College In America And Why Is It Growing Increasingly Unpopular?

by Sreya Sarkar - Wednesday, September 23, 2020 04:28 PM IST
What Is The Electoral College In America And Why Is It Growing Increasingly Unpopular?

HIllary Clinton and Donal Trump: Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/GettyImages
  • No other democratic nation fills its top job the way the U.S. does.

    The U.S. is the only democracy that has a system in which voters elect a body of electors whose sole function is to choose the president.

Those unfamiliar with the U.S. Presidential election system were puzzled in 2016 when Donald Trump won the Presidency despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes.

That's because presidential elections in the World’s oldest democracy are decided not by direct popular vote, but by a process called the electoral college.

It is a political quirk that is still not well understood by many in India, where the real head of the state, the prime minister, is elected directly despite it being the World’s most populous democracy.

India too has an electoral college made of elected members of both houses of parliament and the elected members of the legislative assemblies of all the states, to choose its president.

But the powers of the Indian president are nominal and largely ceremonial, except in times of an emergency.

No other democratic nation fills its top job the way the U.S. does. Out of the World’s 125 democracies, only 30 of them elect the head of the state indirectly.

However, the U.S. is the only democracy that has a system in which voters elect a body of electors whose sole function is to choose the president.

In the upcoming presidential election on November 3 this year, most Americans don't expect President Trump to win the popular vote.

What they are not sure about though, is whether or not he will succeed in squeezing out another electoral college win.

The electoral college is such a departure from the basic tenets of democracy that the democratic nations that were formed after America decided not to adopt it.

The peculiar set of circumstances under which the system was chosen, mostly as an uneasy compromise, have disappeared and is no longer applicable to 21st century America.

But the institution continues as an obsolete relic of a bygone political ecosystem.

What is the electoral college?

Every four years, a temporary group of electors (equal to the total number of representatives in Congress) is created.

Technically, it is these electors, and not the American people, who vote for the president.

Today, the first candidate to get 270 of the 538 [An elector for every member of the House of Representatives (435) and Senate (100), plus an additional three for people who live in the District of Columbia] total electoral votes wins the White House.

Each state gets at least 3 electors. California, the most populous state, has 53 congressmen and 2 senators, so they get 55 electoral votes.

In all 48 states — except Maine and Nebraska, all of the state's electors are awarded to the winner of the popular vote within that state.

This is popularly known as the winner-take-all rule.

History of the electoral college

There was a deep mistrust towards concentrated executive power when the American constitution was being written, given the history of feudal lords and kings and the tyrannical political environment the settlers had left behind in Europe.

Using electors instead of the popular vote was intended to safeguard against the uninformed and uneducated voters since life was very local back then and there were no political parties at the time of the Philadelphia convention in 1787, that could take up the task of informing the voters.

It was crafted as a compromise between those who argued for the election of the president by a vote of Congress and the election of the president by a popular vote of qualified citizens.

It was the only way forward, for otherwise, the slave-owning states of the South would never have joined a Union where they could be outvoted by the more populous, abolitionist states of the North.

Significance in present times

The survival of the electoral college has made not how many votes for a candidate, but which state one votes from, a crucial deciding factor in the Presidential race.

That’s why swing states matter so much. They are a handful of states that are competitive, either because of their history or their demographic composition.

The race is closest therefore, they have swung back and forth between Democratic and Republican candidates in recent years.

These are the battleground states that candidates target with campaign visits, advertising, and staffing due to the winner-take-all rule of the electoral college.

Experts don’t always agree on which states are swing states. The Cook Political Report places Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin on the list this year.

Other experts add Georgia, Minnesota, and North Carolina to it.

Together, these 8 states represent 127 electoral votes.

The future

As many as 136.8 million Americans cast their vote in 2016, yet ultimately only 538 electors chose the President.

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but Donald Trump won the electoral college and was appointed the President.

So, the longer-term question is whether faith in the American electoral system can survive a widening separation between voting preferences and electoral outcomes.

Americans are questioning the political system's legitimacy. Many have begun to feel unempowered and skeptical about their votes having a sizable influence in contributing to the presidential decision.

The electoral college has come under extra scrutiny in the last few years as critics questioned its continuity in making the most important decision in the American political system, but this is not the first time the institution has been denounced.

There have been over 700 proposals in Congress to reform or abolish the electoral college, but none became law because of the overwhelming hurdles in the path of bringing about a constitutional amendment.

While changing the constitution can be rather challenging, what can be attempted is altering some of the practices associated with the electoral college that followed after.

Interestingly, the winner-take-all rule does not find mention in the U.S. constitution.

For the first 13 presidential elections, the states experimented with different electoral systems and then finally decided on the winner-take-all rule.

New York Times journalist Jesse Wegman said in an interview with NPR, "The winner-take-all rule is really just a state invention. There's nothing keeping us from changing it to a different method."

States could choose to award their electoral votes proportionally to their statewide popular vote, ensuring that every vote in even reliably blue or red states mattered to the outcome.

This can be changed without a constitutional amendment if only the states will to do so.

Since late 2006, one such initiative — the National Popular Vote (NVP) movement has been gaining steam.

The interstate NVP Compact aims to defang the Electoral College by having participating states agree to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of what happens within their borders.

To date, 15 states and the District of Columbia have passed NPV bills into law totalling 196 of the needed 270 (of the 538 electoral votes) that would have to pass NPV bills before the compact kicks in and the state's bill take effect.

America has inherited a 200-year-old house with an outdated plumbing system, the electoral college.

To serve the changing needs of a contemporary democracy, the plumbing has to be modernised. Otherwise, what will follow is repeated malfunctioning and instability.

Government shutdowns, rare once, have become more frequent in America now and is a consequence of rising social and political polarisation in the country.

It is turning political campaigns negative and citizens hostile. America has recently witnessed how this kind of discontent leads to mayhem following the George Floyd death.

If citizens don’t feel heard, then such incidents of unrest will only escalate.

Updating a long-established institution or process becomes crucial therefore to protect the basic fabric of democracy in America.

Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

An Appeal...

Dear Reader,

As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.

Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.

We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.

Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.

Become A Patron
Become A Subscriber
Comments ↓
Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

Latest Articles

    Artboard 4Created with Sketch.