The split outcomes of the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections — where the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral vote — raised questions about the way Americans elect their chief executive.
The Electoral College has come under fire for lacking fairness and ignoring the will of voters across the nation. Popular vote supporters believe that the current system fails to create clear mandates and prevents national unity. Advocates for eliminating electoral votes also point to potential benefits in terms of civic engagement and vote integrity.
The following five reasons to abolish the Electoral College are offered by supporters of using a different approach to presidential elections.
1. Match Direct Elections at Local and State Level
Voters in all 50 states cast ballots for local, state, and congressional offices that directly influence election outcomes.
The 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1913 and shifted selection of U.S. senators from state legislators to voters. Advocates for alternatives to the Electoral College argue that American political culture has evolved past the filtering effect of electoral votes.
Yale Law Professor Akhil Reed Amar has been a vocal advocate for using the popular vote for presidential elections. In a 2016 debate published by The New York Times, Amar argued that the chief executive of each state is selected by voters rather than an Electoral College equivalent. He concluded that states have few problems with county-level recounts and certification delays, providing blueprints for a national popular vote.
Penn State University Professor Eric Plutzer also notes that presidential elections have changed significantly since the nation’s founding. Plutzer cites the development of party primaries and the selection of presidential nominees as significantly different from early elections. Since voters already influence presidential primaries, he argues that the Electoral College unnecessarily obscures the interests of voters.
2. The Electoral College Isn’t Democratic
The Brennan Center for Justice notes that the Electoral College has not reflected the popular vote on five occasions. In a March 2019 article, the center’s Alex Cohen argued that any votes over the 50% plus one vote threshold in a state have no impact on the election. Cohen also suggested that electoral votes exacerbate the population imbalance between small states and large states created since the 18th century.
Stanford University Professor Jack Rakove suggested in 2016 that the Electoral College weighs votes differently based on state. Rakove said that the disproportionate influences of small states distorts election results. He believed that a national popular vote would have a unifying effect each election because individual voices, not state voting blocs, would be heard.
National Popular Vote Inc. argues the Electoral College encourages presidential candidates to ignore most states due to the swing-state effect. The organization notes that all of the general election events in the 2012 presidential race took place in 12 states, ignoring 38 states and their voters. National Popular Vote’s Interstate Compact is a state-approved plan to allocate electoral votes to the national popular vote winner, thus introducing more direct democracy into presidential elections.
3. Boost Voices In Red and Blue States
Popular vote supporters argue that the Electoral College reduces the value of votes in red and blue states.
Stanford University Professor Doug McAdam pointed to the small number of closely fought races in the 2012 presidential race. McAdam found only six of the 50 states had margins of victory of 5% or less, while the remaining states had an average margin of 19%. By his calculation, about 80% of American voters cast ballots but exerted no influence over the final result in the presidential election.
A 2016 article in Time Magazine argued that neither system would encourage candidates to spend a lot of time in small states or rural areas. The magazine found that the 2016 presidential tickets spent 53% of their last two months on the trail in Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Ohio. Presidential and vice presidential candidates entirely ignored 27 states throughout the general election that were seen as locks for one party or another.
Time concluded that while rural areas lack the concentration necessary as campaign targets, individual voters from small towns to big cities would have greater influence with a popular vote system than the Electoral College.
4. Encourage Higher Turnout
Supporters for using the popular vote in presidential elections point to long-term improvements to the voting process.
In 2008, Plutzer suggested that while the popular vote would be beneficial, the country had a patchwork of voting technologies that would prevent its implementation. As of 2019, states still maintain various voting methods that would need to be aligned prior to a presidential election. Plutzer and others would no doubt say that a significant push toward a popular vote would incentivize upgrades and harmonization among states.
Amar also pointed out how a popular vote would encourage states to increase turnout. He believed that every state that boosts turnout in this system would exert greater say over the presidential winner. This incentive would be strongest for traditionally red or blue states where turnout stagnates due to expected outcomes. Amar suggested same-day voter registration, early voting, and a national election holiday as methods for increasing turnout that would also be positive outcomes of a popular vote.
5. Reflect Public Support for Popular Vote
Popular vote supporters often point to public polling to show that their views align with those of most Americans.
In May 2019, Gallup released polling data that show 55% of respondents favoring a constitutional amendment to adopt the popular vote for presidential elections. This poll also showed opposition by 53% of respondents to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Gallup indicated that amending away the Electoral College has received majority support in polls dating to 2000.
Additional polling from Marist University and Pew Research Center show consistent support for swapping electoral votes for the national popular vote. Marist’s December 2016 poll on the topic found 52% support for deciding presidential elections by the popular vote to 45% for the current system. Pew published polling in 2018 that showed 55% support for the popular vote option with majorities in similar polls from 2000 to 2018.
Polling can obfuscate the realities of elections and causes but support for the popular vote in polls remains steady.