The US Electoral College system still works

5 May 2016

 

The 2000 US Presidential Election brought to light some of the inadequacies of the current Electoral College system. The Democrat’s candidate that year - Al Gore - held a clear advantage over George W. Bush in the popular vote. Despite this, the balance in the Electoral College was close enough that the 25 votes of Florida would decide the outcome of the election. Immediate returns in that state seemed to favour Bush by the slimmest of margins, but recounts soon narrowed the gap by a thousand votes. The Supreme Court decided to accept Bush’s appeal to stop the recounts. Bush was awarded victory in Florida by just 537 votes, and therefore gained a majority in the Electoral College.

 

 

That fiasco clearly demonstrates that the Electoral College system is capable of producing unfair and disputed results. However, the system does not need to be replaced suddenly by a hopeless alternative.

 

 

Despite its apparent flaws, the Electoral College provides an effective, democratic system. Voters are free to choose the candidates that they want. The Electoral College is still true to the purpose that the founding fathers intended when they wrote the US constitution - active citizens in communities throughout the country would be able to choose the best candidate for president. Less populous states like Alaska and Delaware are not that advantaged when compared to larger states like California, which had 55 electoral votes in 2012. These 55 votes consisted of around 10% of the electoral vote required to win the presidency, which prevented California from having a “voting power” advantage over the smaller states. Even though candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are appealing to the disenfranchised, parties and candidates generally need to build broad coalitions of support throughout the country in order to guarantee success in the electoral college.

 

 

The most popular option to replace the College among Democrats (the party that has always advocated Electoral College reform since 1911), is the option of replacing it with direct popular election. Nonetheless, under this system, candidates might need to achieve as little as 40% of the popular vote to win (or theoretically, even less). This system would fail to ensure that elected presidents had majority support, which would make it very difficult for them to command support from both Houses of Congress, who might consider them to lack a popular mandate. Situations like the one in 2000 would become a regular occurrence under direct election and undermine confidence in the presidential system further. Indeed, another election would be required to guarantee that a certain candidate had secured more than 50% of the vote.

 

 

Since the 1980s, the ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans over electoral reform have become increasingly apparent. Of the 76 electoral amendments introduced to Congress since 1980 to implement a direct election system, the Democrats have supported 90% of them. The Republicans have abandoned pursuing electoral reform, but the Democrats are unwilling to work with the Republicans to amend the existing Electoral College system. Electoral reform is therefore unlikely, given how polarised the parties are over this issue.

 

 

Therefore, whilst the Electoral College is not perfect and can produce contested results, replacing the system is neither necessary nor likely to happen any time soon. Even though the system is currently producing questionable candidates like Donald Trump, generally every candidate needs a broad consensus of support from the population in order to actually win. It allows citizens to engage in choosing their favourite candidates. Votes are allocated fairly to each state. Elements of the Electoral College are indeed broken, but direct election would not change that. Instances like Bush v Gore would become a common feature of American politics. The legitimacy of every president would be thrown into question. The Electoral College should be fixed, but not replaced entirely.  

 

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