Should We Abolish The Electoral College?

May 26th, 2018 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

In a recent interview on “Fox and Friends,” President Trump argued that he won the 2016 presidential election “easily” but would advocate for the abolition of the Electoral College in favor of the direct election of the president, because, “to me, it’s much easier to win the popular vote.” Setting aside the fact that he lost the popular vote by over 3 million votes, is it wise for President Trump to argue for the abolition of the Electoral College?

  • First, how exactly does the Electoral College work? Elections within the United States are state functions, thereby often administered differently within each state.  For example, some states use paper ballots, while others use electronic systems.  But the uniformity of the election of the president and vice president is established by the Constitution and by the practices that have evolved over the history of the nation:
  1. Every four years, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November is Election Day. The voters of the 50 states and the District of Columbia cast their ballots for electors, who will actually elect the president and vice president.
  2. The chosen electors then meet the Monday after the second Wednesday in December in the respective state capitals to cast their ballots. The sealed ballots are then sent to the president of the Senate (i.e., the Vice President).
  3. On 6 January of the following year, the president of the Senate then opens and counts the ballots, officially declaring who the president and vice president are.
  4. The inauguration of the president is on 20 January of that year.


  • Second, how many electoral votes does each state have in the Electoral College? That number is tied to the number each state has in the Senate and the House of Representatives.  For example, Nebraska has two senators (as does each state) and 3 members of the House of Representatives (representation in the House is tied to population).  Therefore, Nebraska has 5 electoral votes.   In all but two states (Maine and Nebraska, which award electoral votes according to congressional districts), there is a winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes.  In other words, whoever wins the popular vote in that state, wins all of that state’s electoral votes.  Therefore the total number of electoral votes in the US is 538 (100 from the total number in the Senate + 435 from the total number in the House + 3 for the District of Columbia (because it is not a state).  To win the presidency, the Constitution requires a majority vote, which today would mean at least 270 electoral votes or more to win the office of the president.


  • Third, there have been five elections in which the candidate who won the popular vote did not win the Electoral College vote and was thereby not elected the president. Those elections were 1824—the election of Andrew Jackson; 1876—the election of Rutherford B.  Hayes; 1888—the election of Benjamin Harrison; 2000—the election George W. Bush; and 2016—the election of Donald Trump.  In fact, of the 48 elections held since 1824, 18 presidents received less than 50% of the popular vote.  The most famous of these was of course Abraham Lincoln, who received 39.9% of the popular vote, but had a significant majority in the Electoral College.


  • Fourth, this seems to be a cumbersome way to elect the president and vice president of the US. Why did the Founders institute this system?  There are several very important considerations about the nature of the democratic-republic they established in the summer of 1787.
  1. The Republic they established is a federal system, whereby power is shared by the national government and the (now) 50 states that make up this Union. (This sharing of power is also known as federalism).  As historians Allen Guelzo and James Hulme demonstrate, the states that make up this Union existed before the Constitution, and, in a practical sense, existed before the American Revolution.  In 1776, nothing really guaranteed that the states would act together and nothing, once independence was achieved, guaranteed that they might not go their separate ways.  “The genius of the Constitutional Convention was its ability to entice the American states into a ‘more perfect union.’  But it was still a union of states, and we probably wouldn’t have had a constitution or a country at all unless the route we took was federalism.  The Electoral College was an integral part of that federal plan.  It made a place for the states as well as the people in electing the president by giving them a say at different points in a federal process and preventing big-city populations from dominating the election of a president.”
  2. The Founders gave significant discussion to the election of the president in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which is demonstrated in Article 2 of the Constitution. Indeed, Article 2, Section 1, which deals with the Electoral College, is longer and contains more detail than any other single issue in the Constitution.  The genius of this method of electing the president is that is both a symbol and a practical implementation of federalism.  The United States is not a confederacy, whereby the states have all the power, nor is it a national democracy, whereby the national government has all the power and the unique identity of each state is lost.  The US is a federal system in which there is a national government but the individual states have unique power and have the capacity to maintain their unique identity.  To dismantle the Electoral College is to dismantle federalism.
  • Finally, the Electoral College has been a major source of stability in America’s democracy. For example, when one examines the parliamentary democracies of Great Britain, Germany or Israel, one sees that ruling governments are put together by coalitions that are built by numerous political parties who have gained various seats in the parliamentary structure.  For example, because of the election in Germany at the end of 2017, it took Angela Merkel nearly five months to put together a coalition that could rule Germany.  Her political party had lost seats and needed to knit together enough parties in the parliament to make it possible for her to rule as prime minister.  The United States has never had that difficulty. Third party candidates or fringe parties rarely can survive if they do not win electoral votes.  Without the Electoral College, there would be no effective brake on the number of “viable” presidential candidates.  If we abolish the Electoral College, “it would not be difficult to imagine a scenario where, in a field of a dozen micro-candidates, the ‘winner’ only needs 10% of the vote, and represents less than 5% of the electorate.  A president elected with smaller and smaller pluralities will only aggravate the sense that an elected president is governing without a real electoral mandate.”

The Electoral College may seem cumbersome to the novice.  But it is a brilliant mechanism for preserving the federal system at the heart of this democratic-republic.  It has also helped preserve a modicum of stability that one does not see in many parliamentary democracies.  It would be most unwise to dismantle it.

See George Will in the Washington Post (2 May 2018) and Allen Guelzo and James Hulme in the Washington Post (15 November 2016).

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One Comment to “Should We Abolish The Electoral College?”

  1. Richard Pendell says:

    Teaching the elements and importance of the Constitution for many years to all ages of students taught me that people are not naturally united or willing to see the ‘big picture’ beyond their own interests and that of their closest best friends. It takes a degree of maturity and far-sightedness that is increasingly rare today.
    Most of the population knows very little of our founding documents. If they do, they’ve been taught that they are no longer functional and need to be changed to suit modern society. They are nothing sacred and always subject to change. Many students immigrating from despotic countries, without any meaningful rule of law or citizen protections from power or abuse, are very quick to understand and revere the Constitution. They’ve lived their lives at the opposite end.
    The Electoral College is a central pillar of our national unity. We have three heavily populated states with costal ports and economies larger than many countries. They could survive without the other 47 states and many of their citizens would love to do just that. There have always been competing economic and regional political interests in the U.S.. The Founding Fathers foresaw this and established the Electoral College so that none of these could ever overpower national unity in favor of local interests.
    We are a very atomized, short-sighted people now with narrow, tribal interests taking us in a million directions. We have lost our national and spiritual underpinnings and are left with everyman for himself. There’s no telling where all this will end, but it doesn’t look promising.