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What Are the Arguments Made in Favor--And Against--the Electoral College?

1. Why do reformers propose abolishing the Electoral College?

Reformers argue that the Electoral College hampers democracy in a manner inconsistent with modern American practices. All votes are not counted equally under the Electoral College. Under our admittedly complex and convoluted system, a single vote for president in the State of Wyoming, for instance, counts for more than a single vote in California. Tiny Wyoming has an inflated number of electoral votes--three--because every state is awarded a minimum of three (one for its member of Congress and two for each senator). California, with a population over fifty times as large as Wyoming, has only a little more than eighteen times as many electoral votes. This means that a vote in Wyoming counts about three times more than a vote in California.

An additional argument is made by George C. Edwards in Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America (Yale University Press, 2004). He points out that nearly two dozen elections were so closely decided that they could have ended up in the House of Representatives with the switch of just a few thousand votes in key states. Two elections (1800, 1824) actually have been thrown into the House of Representatives, while the Supreme Court decided one (2000), and another was settled by a special congressional committee (1976). Each of the disputed elections removed the voting process from the people and created discontent. Such breakdowns in the electoral process undermine democracy and raise questions about the legitimacy of the government elected under these circumstances. Finally, it is always possible that the country could be so divided that an election referred to the House might never be settled there, leaving the office to be filled under the terms of the law of succession.

Another untoward effect of the Electoral College is the emphasis placed upon so-called swing states, which leads to the neglect of the voters in the majority of states where one party or the other holds sway. In the election of 2004, for example, George W. Bush spent little time in California as it was expected to vote Democratic. By contrast, he made more than forty visits to the swing state of Pennsylvania during his term. The larger the swing state, the more attention it receives from the candidates from both parties.

Although it is said that the Electoral College tends to inflate the victories of the winners, helping establish their legitimacy, such victories do not guarantee presidents a free ride in Congress, where their party may be in the minority or the politicians may simply not believe that an Electoral College landslide should be treated the same as a genuine popular majority landslide. President Ronald Reagan, for example, won an Electoral College landslide in 1980 but faced considerable opposition from the Democratic House of Representatives during his term. Only his gifted ability to communicate with the voters helped him win the passage of his key tax cuts. In other words, it was his skill as a politician not necessarily the strength of his Electoral College landslide that helped him succeed in controlling the agenda of Congress (and this was only during his first term).

2. Who supports Electoral College reform?

A surprising number of presidents have lined up behind proposals to reform or abolish the Electoral College: James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. Madison was present at the Constitutional Convention, yet he was dissatisfied with the compromise between the large states and the small states that gave rise to the Electoral College system and as early as 1792 went on record as favoring the direct election of presidents. Jackson, confident of his support among the people and furious with the deal-making that cost him the presidency in 1824 despite his plurality in the popular vote, despised the Electoral College. Nixon became disenchanted with the system after the three-way election of 1968 nearly ended up in the House of Representatives, where George Wallace hoped to be able to wring concessions for the South in Civil Rights battles. More recently, after the Bush v. Gore decision of 2000, New York Senator Hillary Clinton called for the abolition of the Electoral College, along with Representatives Jim Moran and Dick Gephardt. Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader has also added his voice to those who favor a popular vote for president.

Opposition to the Electoral College has generally come from the political Left, although Edwards cites a few conservatives, such as Nixon, Ford and Bob Dole, who have also pushed for abolition. A coalition of progressives and some conservatives has emerged in recent years, uniting unions and business in support of the direct election of the president. Groups such as the American Bar Association, the League of Women Voters, and Progressive Magazine have joined them.

Support for abolition comes has sometimes surfaced in unexpected places. In 1988, George Edwards relates, a political scientist was invited to speak before a group of electors. The speaker denounced the Electoral College as a coterie of elitists whose very existence thwarts democracy. The electors did not take offense. Instead, they voted to pass a resolution calling for the abolition of the Electoral College.*

3. What arguments can be made in favor of the Electoral College?

Edwards dismisses the argument that direct election could lead to popular despotism. But the fear of despotism was strong among the Founding Fathers. It was gleaned from examples in ancient Rome, which witnessed instances of mob rule.

Members of small states argue that if the system were abolished presidents would never bother visiting--or even advertising. Why visit a small state with a media market that reaches, say, 100,000 people, when a visit to a large state can put the candidate in touch with millions?

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a traditional Democrat, supports the Electoral College out of a strong fear that Third Parties would "disunite" America, a theme that Schlesinger has long considered worthy of discussion. American elections, he fears, could degenerate into purely parliamentary affairs, in which the government would become susceptible to long and frequent bouts of instability. Instead of abolishing the Electoral College, Schlesinger calls for it to be mended. To retain the advantage it gives to the two-party system while enhancing the power of the people, he recommends that the popular winner of each state be given an extra two electoral votes, resulting in an extra 102 electoral votes (including an extra two votes for the District of Columbia). This "National Bonus Plan" would presumably preserve the power of the states to function as organic units, while dispensing with the most undemocratic feature of the Electoral College, the tremendous weight given to small states. Under the weighted Electoral College proposed by Schlesinger, the electoral system would presumably preserve traditional federalism, while at the same time maintaining a better correlation between the Electoral College and the popular vote.**

4. Is there a chance that the system will be reformed?

Judith Best, a defender of the Electoral College, believes that people identify with their states and would be upset to lose the advantage many states derive under the current system. The "Red-Blue" pattern seen in the 2000 election would seem to suggest that states do fall into cultural and political patterns that are distinct. Few "Red States" seem likely to support the abolition of the Electoral College in the near future.

Harvard political scientist Alexander Keyssar argues that Electoral College reform is likely in the event of another disputed election. In an article in the Boston Globe he noted that reform nearly came about under President Richard Nixon. Only the opposition of the Old South bosses in Congress prevented change.

The Constitution of course is difficult to amend. As Charles Beard pointed out, it was expressly intended to limit democracy. To this day the system the Founders put in place fulfills their expectations.

*"Why the Electoral College Should Be Abolished," by Lawrence D. Longley. Speech to the 1976 Electoral College in Madison, Wisconsin, as Edwards reports in his book. The Electors were magnanimous in the fact of insult adopted the following resolution: "Resolved: That the 1988 Wisconsin Presidential Electoral College goes on record as calling upon Congress to act to abolish the Electoral College-including the office of Elector; The U.S. President instead should and must be elected directly and equitably by a vote of the American people."

** Arthur Schlesinger, The Imperial Presidency (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), pages 483-484.