Number of electoral votes allocated to each state.Source: USA.gov, “Presidential Election Process,” usa.gov (accessed Nov. 18, 2016)
The debate over the continued use of the Electoral College resurfaced during the 2016 presidential election, when Donald Trump lost the general election to Hillary Clinton by over 2.8 million votes and won the Electoral College by 74 votes. The official general election results indicate that Trump received 304 Electoral College votes and 46.09% of the popular vote (62,984,825 votes), and Hillary Clinton received 227 Electoral College votes and 48.18% of the popular vote (65,853,516 votes). <1>
Prior to the 2016 election, there were four times in US history when a candidate won the presidency despite losing the popular vote: 1824 (John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson), 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilden), 1888 (Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland), and 2000 (George W. Bush over Al Gore). <2>
The Electoral College was established in 1788 by Article II of the US Constitution, which also established the executive branch of the US government, and was revised by the Twelfth Amendment (ratified June 15, 1804), the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified July 1868), and the Twenty-Third Amendment (ratified Mar. 29, 1961). Because the procedure for electing the president is part of the Constitution, a Constitutional Amendment (which requires two-thirds approval in both houses of Congress plus approval by 38 states) would be required to abolish the Electoral College. <3> <4> <5> <6>
The Founding Fathers created the Electoral College as a compromise between electing the president via a vote in Congress only or via a popular vote only. The Electoral College comprises 538 electors; each state is allowed one elector for each Representative and Senator (DC is allowed 3 electors as established by the Twenty-Third Amendment). <3> <4> <5> <6>
In each state, a group of electors is chosen by each political party. On election day, voters choosing a presidential candidate are actually casting a vote for an elector. Most states use the “winner-take-all” method, in which all electoral votes are awarded to the winner of the popular vote in that state. In Nebraska and Maine, the candidate that wins the state’s overall popular vote receives two electors, and one elector from each congressional district is apportioned to the popular vote winner in that district. For a candidate to win the presidency, he or she must win at least 270 Electoral College votes. <3> <4> <5> <6>
At least 700 amendments have been proposed to modify or abolish the Electoral College. <25>
On Monday Dec. 19, 2016, the electors in each state met to vote for President and Vice President of the United States. Of the 538 Electoral College votes available, Donald J. Trump received 304 votes, Hillary Clinton received 227 votes, and seven votes went to others: three for Colin Powell, one for Faith Spotted Eagle, one for John Kasich, one for Ron Paul, and one for Bernie Sanders). On Dec. 22, 2016, the results were certified in all 50 states. On Jan. 6, 2017, a joint session of the US Congress met to certify the election results and Vice President Joe Biden, presiding as President of the Senate, read the certified vote tally. <21> <22>
A Sep. 2020 Gallup poll found 61% of Americans were in favor of abolishing the Electoral College, up 12 points from 2016. <24>For the 2020 election, electors voted on Dec. 14, and delivered the results on Dec. 23. <23> On Jan. 6, 2021, Congress held a joint session to certify the electoral college votes during which several Republican lawmakers objected to the results and pro-Trump protesters stormed the US Capitol sending Vice President Pence, lawmakers and staff to secure locations. The votes were certified in the early hours of Jan. 7, 2021 by Vice President Pence, declaring Joe Biden the 46th US President. President Joe Biden was inaugurated with Vice President Kamala Harris on Jan. 20, 2021. <26>
Should the United States Use the Electoral College in Presidential Elections?
The Founding Fathers enshrined the Electoral College in the US Constitution because they thought it was the best method to choose the president.
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Using electors instead of the popular vote was intended to safeguard against uninformed or uneducated voters by putting the final decision in the hands of electors most likely to possess the information necessary to make the best decision; to prevent states with larger populations from having undue influence; and to compromise between electing the president by popular vote and letting Congress choose the president. <7> <8> <9>
According to Alexander Hamilton, the Electoral College is if “not perfect, it is at least excellent,” because it ensured “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” <7>
The Founders wanted to balance the will of the populace against the risk of “tyranny of the majority,” in which the voices of the masses can drown out minority interests. <10>
The Electoral College ensures that all parts of the country are involved in selecting the President of the United States.
If the election depended solely on the popular vote, then candidates could limit campaigning to heavily-populated areas or specific regions. To win the election, presidential candidates need electoral votes from multiple regions and therefore they build campaign platforms with a national focus, meaning that the winner will actually be serving the needs of the entire country.
Without the electoral college, groups such as Iowa farmers and Ohio factory workers would be ignored in favor of pandering to metropolitan areas with higher population densities, leaving rural areas and small towns marginalized. <11> <12> <13>
The Electoral College guarantees certainty to the outcome of the presidential election.
If the election were based on popular vote, it would be possible for a candidate to receive the highest number of popular votes without actually obtaining a majority. <11>
This happened with President Nixon in 1968 and President Clinton in 1992, when both men won the most electoral votes while receiving just 43% of the popular vote. <11> The existence of the Electoral College precluded calls for recounts or demands for run-off elections.
The electoral process can also create a larger mandate to give the president more credibility; for example, President Obama received 51.3% of the popular vote in 2012 but 61.7% of the electoral votes. <14> In 227 years, the winner of the popular vote has lost the electoral vote only five times. <2> This proves the system is working.
The reasons the Founding Fathers created the Electoral College are no longer relevant.
Modern technology and political parties allows voters to get necessary information to make informed decisions in a way that could not have been foreseen by the Founding Fathers. <23>
While Alexander Hamilton in 1788 saw the electors as being “free from any sinister bias,” members of the Electoral College are now selected by the political parties and they are expected to vote along party lines regardless of their own opinions about the candidates. <7> <4> <16>
Just as several voting laws that limited direct democracy in the Constitution have been modified or discarded throughout history, so should the Electoral College. As a result of Constitutional amendments, women and former slaves were given the right to vote, and Senators, once appointed by state legislatures, are now elected directly by popular vote. <15> The vice presidency was once awarded to the runner up in electoral votes, but the procedure was changed over time to reflect the reality of elections. <17>
The Electoral College gives too much power to “swing states” and allows the presidential election to be decided by a handful of states.
The two main political parties can count on winning the electoral votes in certain states, such as California for the Democratic Party and Indiana for the Republican Party, without worrying about the actual popular vote totals. Because of the Electoral College, presidential candidates only need to pay attention to a limited number of states that can swing one way or the other. <18>
A Nov. 6, 2016 episode of PBS NewsHour revealed that “Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have made more than 90% of their campaign stops in just 11 so-called battleground states. Of those visits, nearly two-thirds took place in the four battlegrounds with the most electoral votes — Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina.” <19>
The Electoral College ignores the will of the people.
There are over 300 million people in the United States, but just 538 people decide who will be president. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than one million votes, yet still lost the election on electoral votes. <14>
Even President Donald Trump, who benefitted from the system, stated after the 2016 election that he believes presidents should be chosen by popular vote: “I would rather see it where you went with simple votes. You know, you get 100 million votes and somebody else gets 90 million votes and you win.” <20>
Just as in 2000 when George W. Bush received fewer nationwide popular votes than Al Gore, Donald Trump will serve as the President of the United States despite being supported by fewer Americans than his opponent. <2>
1. Listen to a Constitution Center podcast exploring the pros and cons of the Electoral College.
2. Explore the Electoral College via the US National Archives.
3. Consider the American Bar Association’s fact check on whether the Electoral College can be abolished.
4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.
5. Push for the position and policies you support by writing US national senators and representatives.
|1.||Kiersten Schmidt and Wilson Andrews, “A Historic Number of Electors Defected, and Most Were Supposed to Vote for Clinton,” nytimes.com, Dec. 19, 2016|
|2.||Rachael Revesz, “Five Presidential Nominees Who Won Popular Vote but Lost the Election,” independent.co.uk, Nov. 16, 2016|
|3.||National Archives and Records Administration, “The 2016 Presidential Election,” archives.gov (accessed Nov. 16, 2016)|
|4.||National Archives and Records Administration, “About the Electors,” archives.gov (accessed Nov. 16, 2016)|
|5.||National Archives and Records Administration, “Presidential Election Laws,” archives.gov (accessed Nov. 16, 2016)|
|6.||National Archives and Records Administration, “What Is the Electoral College?,” archives.gov (accessed Nov. 16, 2016)|
|7.||Alexander Hamilton, “The Federalist Papers: No. 68 (The Mode of Electing the President),” congress.gov, Mar. 14, 1788|
|8.||Marc Schulman, “Why the Electoral College,” historycentral.com (accessed Nov. 18, 2016)|
|9.||Melissa Kelly, “Why Did the Founding Fathers Create Electors?,” 712educators.about.com, Jan. 28, 2016|
|10.||Hans A. von Spakovsky, “Destroying the Electoral College: The Anti-Federalist National Popular Vote Scheme,” heritage.org, Oct. 27, 2011|
|11.||Richard A. Posner, “In Defense of the Electoral College,” slate.com, Nov. 12, 2012|
|12.||Jarrett Stepman, “Why America Uses Electoral College, Not Popular Vote for Presidential Election,” cnsnews.com, Nov. 7, 2016|
|13.||Gary Gregg, “Electoral College Keeps Elections Fair,” politico.com, Dec. 5, 2012|
|14.||John Nichols, “Obama”s 3 Million Vote, Electoral College Landslide, Majority of States Mandate,” thenation.com, Nov. 9, 2012|
|15.||Joe Miller, “The Reason for the Electoral College,” factcheck.org, Feb. 11, 2008|
|16.||William C. Kimberling, “The Manner of Choosing Electors,” uselectionatlas.org (accessed Nov. 18, 2016)|
|17.||Sanford V. Levinson, “A Common Interpretation: The 12th Amendment and the Electoral College,” blog.constitutioncenter.org, Nov. 17, 2016|
|18.||Andrew Prokop, “Why the Electoral College Is the Absolute Worst, Explained,” vox.com, Nov. 10, 2016|
|19.||Sam Weber and Laura Fong, “This System Calls for Popular Vote to Determine Winner,” pbs.org, Nov. 6, 2016|
|20.||Leslie Stahl, “President-elect Trump Speaks to a Divided Country on 60 Minutes,” cbsnews.com, Nov. 13, 2016|
|21.||Lisa Lerer, “Clinton Wins Popular Vote by Nearly 2.9 Million,” elections.ap.org, Dec. 22, 2016|
|22.||Doina Chiacu and Susan Cornwell, “US Congress Certifies Trump’s Electoral College Victory,” reuters.com, Jan. 6, 2017|
|23.||Congressional Research Service, “The Electoral College: A 2020 Presidential Election Timeline,” crsreports.congress.gov, Sep. 3, 2020|
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|Jonathen Easley, “Gallup: 61 Percent Support Abolishing the Electoral College,” thehill.com, Sep. 24, 2020|
|25.||Fair Vote, “Past Attempts at Reform,” fairvote.org (accessed Oct. 1, 2020)|
|26.||John Wagner, et al., “Pence Declares Biden Winner of the Presidential Election after Congress Finally Counts Electoral Votes,” washingtonpost.com, Jan. 7, 2021|