While most other democracies elect their heads of state through a popular vote, the Electoral College makes American democracy distinct. The president of the United States is elected by a body of electors designed to advantage the votes of those from smaller states. However, some prominent politicians such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) believe the Electoral College should be abolished because every vote should be equal. While I am not particularly a fan of Warren, I must say, she is right.
The Electoral College consists of 538 electors from the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Each state’s allotted number of electors is determined by the number of members in its congressional delegation (Washington, D.C., receives a number equal to its shadow congressional delegation). In order for a candidate to be elected president of the U.S., he or she must receive 270 electoral votes. The electors almost always support the candidate that receives the most votes in the state they represent. But this practice is flawed. A candidate can narrowly win close states by very small margins while losing the overall vote because of America’s first-past-the-post voting system. For example, President Donald J. Trump won the 20 electoral votes for Pennsylvania in the 2016 presidential election, even though he won by a margin of less than 1 percent.
Critics of the Electoral College claim that the process undermines America’s democratic institutions. Although Trump defeated 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton 304-227 in electoral votes, he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, or a margin of 2.8 percent.
The Electoral College has helped enable the polarization of American politics. Statistics compiled from the 2016 presidential election reveal that urban voters have become increasingly liberal and align with the Democratic Party while rural voters have become increasingly conservative and side with the Republican Party. Although the polarization may have emerged regardless, the Electoral College worsened the divide. As the recent presidential election implies, candidates now focus more on energizing their base and campaigning in swing states as opposed to focusing on the country as a whole. For example, Clinton wrote off the more rural counties while campaigning in the Rust Belt. Some may argue that the success of Midwestern and Great Plain Democrats such as Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) prove the left can still appeal to rural voters, while New England Republicans like Gov. Charlie Baker (R-Mass.) prove Republicans can win in urban states. However, Tester and Baker are mere exceptions to the norm of political polarization, as few of their fellow party members can achieve such electoral successes.
The conservative National Review’s Editorial Board supports the Electoral College, claiming that the institution “guarantees that candidates who seek the only nationally elected office in America must attempt to appeal to as broad a geographic constituency as possible.” This means that candidates must have wide appeal to rural and urban voters alike, instead of “retreating to their preferred pockets and running up the score.” But the flaw in the National Review’s argument is that this has already happened. America has become increasingly polarized and the two parties differ not just on their party platforms but also in their cultural and racial makeup. If anything, it is the Electoral College that has enabled this, as Republicans now represent most of rural, agrarian America whereas the Democrats represent urban, cosmopolitan America. Polarization enables overrepresentation.
Unfortunately, abolishing the Electoral College seems impossible in current circumstances. Opponents would either have to pass a constitutional amendment with support from two-thirds of the House and Senate and approval from 38 states or they would have to convene a constitutional convention with the approval of 34 states to change the system. Neither seems likely, as the issue has become partisan; many Democratic states support the Electoral College’s abolition while Republican states will do anything to defend it.
If Americans want to remove the Electoral College, we need to depoliticize the institution. This will be difficult because in all five instances in which a candidate won the popular vote and still lost the presidential election (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, 2016), the candidate happened to be a Democrat. During the 1980s, Republicans, Democrats and Independents all favored deciding the outcome of presidential elections off the popular vote. However, support for the popular vote amongst Republicans dipped after contentious elections, especially after the 2000 election was so close that the Supreme Court was forced to decide the results. If 2020 is another close election, it is likely that neither mainstream party will want to come to agreement about the Electoral College’s fate. And if Warren secures the Democratic nomination, she will probably have to do what Clinton couldn’t by winning both the popular and electoral vote.
In order for the Electoral College to be abolished, Warren needs to convince the public to support its elimination by winning, and winning bigly.
Sun Woo Park (19Ox, 21C) is from San Jose, Calif.