Now that the presidential election has finally been resolved, the next issue will most certainly be how to reform our electoral system. Already, we have heard numerous suggestions to eliminate the Electoral College. One national poll showed that 54% of the American voters were in favor of abolishing the Electoral College.
The reasons for abolishing the Electoral College are well known. It is undemocratic. It allows the person who won the popular vote to lose the election. It is confusing to the average voter. But there must be some good reasons for keeping the Electoral College, or it would have been abolished long ago.
The Founding Fathers did not trust the common man to make an informed decision about candidates from other states. Communications prevented all but the wealthiest from knowing the leading citizens of other states. So they established an indirect method of electing the President and Vice President. The voters of a state would vote for a small number of their leading citizens who would vote for them. These leading citizens, it was expected, would be political and economic leaders who had traveled and become familiar with the leaders of the other states.
But the Founding Fathers had other reasons for establishing the Electoral College. They saw it as a method of preserving individual state identity, and the smaller states felt it would protect them from the larger states.
Today, the Electoral College continues to serve these functions. Smaller states, which might be ignored in a direct popular election, have a larger role than their population would indicate. Even the smallest state has three electoral votes, the minimum number. For the smaller states, this is a larger proportion of the electoral vote than they would have in a race decided by popular votes alone. The fact that these three, four or five electoral votes are won in a block (winner-take-all) give the smaller states a greater value than if their votes were awarded proportionally.
The Electoral College also gives rural areas a larger value than a popular election would. If the popular vote alone determined the winner, the candidates would place most of their time and resources in the largest population areas, the largest cities. Smaller cities and rural areas would have considerably less power than they do in the Electoral College system where they are worth a small block of electoral votes.
The Electoral College also serves a function the Founding Fathers did not intend. A large number of our Presidents have won with less than a majority of the popular vote. (See my article entitled “Minority Presidents”) The Electoral College tends to magnify the margin of victory, almost always turning a plurality win in the popular vote into a majority win in the Electoral College. This gives the new President the much-heralded “mandate” to carry out his program. John Kennedy in 1960 and Richard Nixon in 1968 won very narrow victories in the popular vote, neither winning a majority. But both had a solid electoral vote majority that gave them the mandate to lead the nation.
Even the larger states may prefer to keep the Electoral College. Those areas of California outside Los Angeles and San Francisco might have much less importance in a direct popular election than they do in the Electoral College system where they can be vital in determining who gets the very large block of electoral votes from California.
So a large number of people feel that they have more political power, that their state gets a larger piece of the federal pie, because of the block of electoral votes their state represents. With its obvious faults, the Electoral College system provides a different balance of political power than would a direct popular election. For this reason, many people will not want a change. These people will decide based on their own best interests as they perceive them. The Electoral College, for all the complaints, will probably not be abolished in the near foreseeable future.