Senator Elizabeth Warren sparked an ongoing debate earlier this year when she announced that she wanted to abolish the Electoral College (EC). Members from both sides of the aisle chimed in with their fears of white suppression, critiques of its efficacy, and concerns of dismantling the Constitution. With the ongoing discord, most Americans have at least heard of the EC by now, but not many of us know exactly what it is or how it works within our elections.
With the 2020 elections quickly approaching, the Electoral College will determine the next president of the US, and it’s important we understand how.
First, the EC is not a learning institution as the name would imply. The name calls back to the old definition of college, meaning a group devoted to a single goal. Electors are appointed based on the states’ congressional delegation, which means the state has the same number of electors as its number of representatives and senators. Electoral votes are then awarded based on the popular vote in each state. (That’s why on election day each state turns either red or blue to signify which way the electors voted.)
Instead of a direct democracy where the vote of the people would directly affect elections, we have a representative democracy. This means elected officials vote on our behalf. Our founding fathers instituted this structure because they were concerned that the general population (i.e. land-owning white men) could be easily swayed, and subsequently decided US citizens needed a level-headed buffer and something to ensure states with lower populations had adequate representation. The EC has been an American fixture ever since.
However, that’s not to say it hasn’t been contested throughout history. In 1966 Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, who had successfully sponsored both the 25th and 26th amendments, began a campaign to eliminate the Electoral College and was almost successful until the bill died in the Senate.
Unsurprisingly, Senator Warren and a handful of other presidential candidate hopefuls want to eliminate it altogether so that every vote counts equally. In fact, during Warren’s CNN Town Hall, she pointed out that candidates don’t go to all the states anyway. They only go to “battleground states” like Florida or Colorado (which basically means that the rest of the country is ignored).
And then there are those who directly oppose the EC’s abolishment. Montana Governor Steve Bullock doesn’t see the merit in removing it. “…Rather than upending something that’s been around since the start of our country, I’d rather turn around and say, ‘Why is it that we’re not winning in certain places?’” Ray Haynes, a former Republican state senator from California, also supports a switch to the popular vote. He agrees that the election is essentially won in a handful of swing states. Since its inception, only five presidents have lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote (we see you George W. Bush and Donald Trump).
Of course, if the EC were to ever be abolished there would need to be a whole new system in place. Thankfully, there are a few alternatives.
For one, the National Popular Vote Bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The way this bill would work is every voter directly elects 270+ electors and those electors would vote in accordance with the people. This bill has already been enacted into law in 15 jurisdictions with 189 electoral votes in states like California and New Jersey.
Another avenue would be a Multi-Member District (MMD) system. In this system, an electoral district elects more than one representative to office. MMDs are proportional and more representative of how their population has voted instead of the winner-take-all system most states currently have. But this system is dependent on the districts which are susceptible to partisan gerrymandering, so, because district lines can be altered and manipulated at will, it’s not a perfect solution.
Another potential replacement would be Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). Voters rank candidates from first to last on their ballot, and the election is over if one of them wins a majority — 50% plus 1 — of the vote. If not, candidates are eliminated one by one and their remaining votes are reallocated to the next best choice. This continues until there’s one candidate left with the most votes. Every voter has a say in who gets elected and they have more than one person to vote for. But this system also has its drawbacks — research has shown that RCV increases the rate of ballot errors and disqualifies ballots because of the confusing process.
Though states like Maine and Washington currently utilize these voting systems, they are far from becoming the norm or true replacements for the EC. In order to abolish or even reform it, there would need to be an amendment to the Constitution, of which there have been 27. Making an amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote of both the House and the Senate, and then ratification by three-quarters of the states (38 of the current 50). Without those steps, the EC will remain strong for the foreseeable future.
There’s a lot of chatter over what should be done with the EC. It’s a controversial and mobilizing talking point candidates will use to strengthen their support, knowing they won’t be able to change the election process. But until we figure out as a nation what should be done with the EC, one thing is for certain: both parties should figure out how to represent the will of the people instead of a centuries-old institution they can’t change.
Johanie Martinez-Cools is a blogger, writer, book editor, and aspiring author.