The concept of the electoral college has become increasingly controversial as the years have gone on. Two of our last three presidents lost the popular vote, and that has brought a lot of attention to the mechanisms of the electoral process. Many have begun to examine the electoral college as an outdated system and to propose alternatives that would better reflect the true majority of the population.
Surprisingly, despite all the negative media the electoral college has gotten over the past couple of years, public support for it has gone up in recent years. In 2004, a Gallup poll showed 34% of Americans wanted to keep the electoral college intact. In 2011 this had gone up slightly to 35%. By 2016, this number was up to 47%. Much of this change can be attributed to a shift within the Republican views on the electoral college, in which they shifted decisively in favor of it. 49% of Americans say they want to amend the Constitution to allow for a popular vote for president, whereas in the past, a clear majority favored amending the U.S. Constitution to replace the Electoral College with a popular vote system.
However, despite the current resurgence in faith in the system, historically the system has been at odds with the public. According to the National Archives, “Reference sources indicate that over the past 200 years, over 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. There have been more proposals for Constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College than on any other subject. The American Bar Association has criticized the Electoral College as ‘archaic’ and ‘ambiguous’ and its polling showed 69 percent of lawyers favored abolishing it in 1987. Five times a candidate has won the popular vote and lost the election. Andrew Jackson in 1824 (to John Quincy Adams); Samuel Tilden in 1876 (to Rutherford B. Hayes); Grover Cleveland in 1888 (to Benjamin Harrison); Al Gore in 2000 (to George W. Bush); Hillary Clinton in 2016 (to Donald J. Trump).” The most common cause for renewed desire for change, at least in recent times, seems to be just that – when the will of the people (the popular vote) stands at odds with the will of the Electoral College.
Republican Presidents Who Lost the Popular Vote
Many allege that the Republican ideal shift towards the electoral college was greatly impacted by the elections of George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Both of these Republican presidents lost the popular vote but won the elections. It was after these two elections that support for replacing the electoral college with a popular vote fell sharply. Currently, 19% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents favor basing the winner on the popular vote, down from 49% in October 2004 and 54% in 2011.
History of the Electoral College Controversy
The History, Arts, & Archives portion of the Unites States House of Representatives explains the formation and history of the electoral college quite well, stating, “Established in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College is the formal body which elects the President and Vice President of the United States. Each state has as many ‘electors’ in the Electoral College as it has Representatives and Senators in the United States Congress, and the District of Columbia has three electors. When voters go to the polls in a Presidential election, they actually are voting for the slate of electors vowing to cast their ballots for that ticket in the Electoral College.” Therefore, the amount of weight a state carries is, primarily, based on its population. How so? Each state carries the same number of electors as they do Representatives and Senators in Congress. Each state carries two Senators, but the number of Representatives a state carries is based on their population.
The site goes on to explain, “Originally, the Electoral College provided the Constitutional Convention with a compromise between the popular election of the President and congressional selection One Founding-era argument for the Electoral College stemmed from the fact that ordinary Americans across a vast continent would lack sufficient information to choose directly and intelligently among leading presidential candidates. This objection rang true in the 1780s, when life was far more local. But the early emergence of national presidential parties rendered the objection obsolete by linking presidential candidates to slates of local candidates and national platforms, which explained to voters who stood for what.”
So how does the general public of the 21st century feel about the persistence of this somewhat-outdated way of determining vote allocation? From 1967 to 1980, Gallup polls found majority support for an amendment to base the winner on the popular vote. Support for an amendment peaked at 80% in 1968, after Richard Nixon almost lost the popular vote while winning the Electoral College. In the end he won both by a narrow margin, but this issue demonstrated the possibility of a candidate becoming president without winning the popular vote, sparking the controversy that has grown over the years. In the 1976 election, Jimmy Carter faced a similar situation, though he also won the popular vote and Electoral College. In a poll taken weeks after the election, 73% were in favor of an amendment doing away with the Electoral College.
Arguments Against the Popular Vote
The largest argument that the Republican Party has against an all-out popular vote is that it opens the flood gates for possible corruption. The impact of voter fraud rises greatly when the electoral college is taken out of the picture. The 012 Republican Party Platform stated, “We oppose the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact or any other scheme to abolish or distort the procedures of the Electoral College. We recognize that an unconstitutional effort to impose “national popular vote” would be a mortal threat to our federal system and a guarantee of corruption as every ballot box in every state would become a chance to steal the presidency.” This goes hand in hand with Republican advocacy for stronger voter ID laws to prevent voter fraud in general.
Updates to the Process
This, of course, isn’t to say that some Republicans don’t want to see the system overhauled. In fact, there have been proposals from Republicans to do so in the past. The last large proposal to do so took place in early 2013. Some Republican leaders proposed that instead of all of one state’s Electoral College votes going to whichever candidate won the state’s popular vote, the Electoral College votes be divided proportionally among the candidates. This would bring the country closer to a voting system that fully reflected the popular vote, while still preserving the electoral college in some capacity. In fact, Two states, Maine and Nebraska, already do this.
However, Republicans see this as an issue for each state to decide on its own. As the current laws stand, each state has the right to shape its own election law, and Republican views on the electoral college include keeping that system in place.
The proposal in 2013 saw a lot of backlash from the Democrats, primarily because it was seen as a reaction to Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 election. Many cited history and tradition as reasons to not overhaul the system. “The Electoral College has served the country quite well,” said Louisiana GOP Chairman Roger Villere. “This is coming from states where it might be an advantage, but I’m worried about what it means down the road. This is a system that has worked. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about changes, but we have to be very careful about any actions we might take.”
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