Every four years when the Presidential election season is upon us, we hear cries that the Electoral College is an outdated, anachronistic institution, that we should just get rid of it and rely only on the popular vote to elect the President. After all, the one-man, one-vote principle works well enough as we select members of legislatures and governors, does it not?
I agree that the system is overdue for change, but I should hate to see us “throw the baby out with the bath water.”
The founding fathers, judging by their own situations, nevertheless seem to have been decidedly prescient for our times, too. Those men (they were, of course, all men—more’s the pity) worried that heavily populated States would ride rough shod over the smaller States. They wisely left most electoral matters within the States themselves up to the States (see the 10th Amendment), though the 17th Amendment in 1913 allowed for direct voting for members of the U.S. Senate.
The problem in 1787—and today—is how—in a federal republic—to make the States more or less equal in selecting the chief executive position—the President. The solution was two votes: a popular vote and a vote of the Electoral College—groups of citizens chosen by each State to equal the combined number of members that State has in the national legislative body. As Congress increased in numbers, so did the Electoral College. Today, that number is 538 which equals 435 members of the House of Representatives, 100 Senators, plus 3 for the District of Columbia which by law is to have a vote equal to that of the smallest State (though its population exceeds that of the smallest State).
Thus did the founders seek to balance the small and large States. And thus do we today have California casting 54 votes in the Electoral College and Alaska, 3. Within almost all States, it is a winner-take-all matter. As a system, it is by no means perfect, but I would argue that it does accord the smaller States a measure of power they might not otherwise have and that it helps balance the vote of the individual in Delaware with that of the individual in Texas or Florida. Were we to rely on the popular vote alone, few candidates or political organizations would ever bother with the smaller States (like mine—Nevada).
Over the years, there have been a number of alternatives proposed—any of which would require a Constitutional Amendment. The most simplistic (and the probably least likely to survive the amendment process) is to rely only on the nationwide popular vote. There are two other proposals that I find quite attractive. (1) The Electoral College vote in each State is distributed by percentage according to how the State’s popular vote went. So, if 40% of the popular vote in Kentucky went to candidate A, he or she would get 40% of Kentucky’s EC vote. (2) Another plan (the one I like best) calls for each EC vote to go in the same direction as each Congressional District voted, with the two votes equal to the Senate being on a winner-take-all vote for the entire State.
I’m sure that one can go on line—or consult a civics textbook—and see not only the pros and cons of the several alternatives, but also how recent Presidential elections would have been decided by any of them.