5 Reasons to Keep the Electoral College

The future of the Electoral College is being debated following the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections when the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college vote and thus the election.

Advocates of the institution point to its functionality, endurance, and tradition as valuable features. The Electoral College is also viewed as a critical part of the checks and balances fundamental to the American political system.

The following five reasons to keep the Electoral College are used by its defenders.

1. Maintain American Federalism

A key argument to keep the Electoral College is that the process is integral to America’s federalist philosophy. Federalism involves diffusion of powers among federal, state, and local governments rather than a strong central government. The Electoral College is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution but states are allowed to determine how electors are selected. Small states and large states have their say in each presidential election based on each state’s popular vote.

Allen Guelzo argued in National Affairs that eliminating the Electoral College would open other institutions to reform. He suggested opening federalism to review would eliminate the need for the U.S. Senate because senators represent entire states rather than single voters. Guelzo also noted that state governments would lose their say in national affairs because electoral votes offer units of influence in elections.

Guelzo said that getting rid of the Electoral College would leave the United States open to messy parliamentary-style elections.

2. Tradition of Slow but Steady Institutions

Advocates for the Electoral College harken back to the deliberations of the Constitutional Conventions over the new nation’s political processes. Harvard Law Professor Charles Fried argues that states act as diffusers and filters in national politics. Electoral voting blocs by region go back and forth depending on regional changes as well as party stances. These changes take hold over decades of elections rather than oscillating from election to election. Fried suggests that the Electoral College has survived political strife, civil war, and other changes because represents state interests and protects against outlier movements.

Guelzo adds that the U.S. Constitution’s checks and balances mean that the American government isn’t supposed to move quickly. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches take great pains to limit excessive power by their respective branches. Each U.S. senator holds office for six years, providing enough time to implement policies without having to frequently seek a mandate.

Guelzo says that the nation’s founders included deliberate institutions to check the early impulse toward a messy and inefficient direct democracy.

3. Encourage National Campaigns

Supporters of the current electoral process say it forces candidates into truly national campaigns. Jurist Richard Posner spoke about the Electoral College’s role in electing “everyone’s president” in a 2012 Slate article. He said that it is impossible for the leader in electoral votes to win enough states in one region to capture the presidency. Voters in different regions don’t need to worry that a candidate who only speaks to a small group of states will be their nation’s head of state. Posner also believed that the Electoral College forces presidential candidates and parties to develop national appeal by campaigning in closely contested states across the country.

Senior Fellow Ronald Rotunda with the Cato Institute wrote an essay noting the leverage provided to small states and racial minorities by the Electoral College. The District of Columbia and seven states have three electoral votes each, meaning that they can act as decisive voices in close presidential elections. Rotunda argued that voters in these states would be completely ignored without the Electoral College.

He also stated that black and Latino voters attract attention from national candidates because they tend to live in large states with significant electoral vote counts.

4. Clear and Decisive Outcomes

In a 2008 MIT conference on the Electoral College, SUNY Cortland Professor Judith Best said that a popular vote presidential election would create chaos due to a “50 Floridas” situation. Best referred to the contentious election deadlock that took place in Florida following the 2000 presidential election. Proponents of maintaining the Electoral College often point to uncertainty surrounding lawsuits and recounts related to a popular vote model.

Posner concluded that electoral vote margins tend to exceed popular vote margins for winning presidential candidates. He said state voting blocs make ties rare and the popular vote remains an informal check on unpopular presidents. Posner also stated that a popular vote election would likely require a runoff mechanism in cases where no candidate receives a majority of votes. He cited the 1968 and 1992 elections as examples where the absence of a popular vote majority would lead to serious questions about the president’s mandate without the Electoral College.

Peter Wallison with the American Enterprise Institute followed Posner’s thread by arguing for the Electoral College as a means for presidential legitimacy. Wallison wrote that electoral votes create a majority winner in each election, sparing the nation any periods of constitutional crisis. He imagined a scenario under a popular vote system where individual issue parties fill the ballot and divide the presidential vote.

Wallison concluded that the Electoral College is an elegant solution to the legitimacy issue that doesn’t require constitutional amendments and partisan sparring.

5. Pitfalls of Popular Vote

Many arguments for keeping the Electoral College in place poke holes in arguments made for popular vote elections. Guelzo is among many advocates who note that the United States is a constitutional republic rather than a democracy. He also counters arguments for the concept of one person, one vote by noting that the concept comes from a U.S. Supreme Court decision rather than a constitutional provision.

In short, advocates see the Electoral College as the legitimate approach to presidential elections based on the country’s origins.

The Heritage Foundation published an essay in 2004 that, among other arguments, presented the Electoral College as a firewall against fraud. In the current system, a small number of fraudulent votes have no impact on the outcome of a presidential election. The Electoral College prevents systematic fraud by diffusing fraudulent voting across multiple states. This essay also argued that the margin for recounts, lawsuits, and questions about legitimacy would expand without the filter of electoral votes.

Fried also offered a response to critics of the Electoral College who want direct democratic elections for president. He noted in the New York Times that America’s democratic impulses are matched by democratic processes at the local and state level. Voters in each state choose their school board members, city councilors, and state legislators. The balance of direct democracy at the local level with a voting bloc system at the national level is the essence of federalism, according to Electoral College supporters.