OVERVIEW AND HISTORY
The electoral college has been subject to much furious debate in recent years. This is partially a partisan issue. In the past five presidential elections, a Republican won the electoral college, while a Democrat won the popular vote. A candidate winning the popular vote and losing the electoral college had only happened three times in the nation's history before that. Currently, a majority of Americans support abolishing the electoral college, but because it is in the US constitution, getting rid of it will be incredibly difficult.
Part of the debate centers on whether the system is an antiquated one. The electoral college was put in the constitution in order to act as a check on direct Democracy. With this system, each state appoints a number of electors, based on the number of representatives each state has in both houses of congress, and these electors pick the president. It is expected that each elector will vote for the winner of each state's popular vote, but that is not a given. There have been a number of "faithless electors" in US history, though none have ever affected the outcome of an election. Adding to the confusion, both Nebraska and Maine award their electors proportionately, giving the winner of each congressional district one elector, and awarding two to the winner of the state as a whole.
Arguments For The Electoral College
The first, and most often proposed defense of the electoral college is it defends state's rights. This goes along with the original intention of the way the government was structured. Initially, each state in the union wanted a certain amount of autonomy from the federal government, and smaller states wanted to not be subjected to the whims of the larger states.
Opponents of the electoral college try to dismantle this argument by pointing to the bad history that state's rights as an argument has had. That history is summed up in two words, slavery and segregation. However, state's rights as a concept is not easily reduced to those two odious uses of the term. One issue that is usually supported by those on the left is marijuana legalization. With this issue there has been fear that the federal government will not respect individual state's rights to legalize marijuana.
The argument is more complex than it initially appears. Opponents of the electoral college usually appeal to a concept of "one vote, one person", but there are obviously situations that we do not rely on Democracy to solve the problem. If there is a dispute between the states of California and Nevada, the situation is not resolved by a democratic vote by the citizens of those two states. The situation is resolved by an appointed judiciary. The concept of the electoral college functions a similar way, not allowing the interests of large states to trample those of small states.
Adding to this argument, proponents of the electoral college might say that the reason we have seen a recent disconnect between the popular vote and the electoral college winner is that one party has primarily been serving the demographics of the more densely populated states of the east and west coast, while the other party has had support from more rural states in the middle of the country. The intent of the electoral college was to force presidents to have to gain wide regional support, meaning that even if they get fewer votes they are appealing to a wider net of voters across various states with different economies and interests.
A final argument for the electoral college is it keeps elections simple. With a popular vote, a close election could involve a massive recount across the whole country. With this system, a few states decide the election, and those states that usually go to one party or the other by a wide margin are having the interests of the majority of their citizens honored.
Proponents could also point out that only once has the winner of the popular vote who lost the electoral college won a majority of the countries voters. Most recently, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a particularly wide margin, but she still only won 48.2% of voters, compared to the over 50% that Barack Obama won both times. Giving the presidency to a candidate who could not secure the majority of the voters over one who won the electoral college might seem equally problematic to some people. However, opponents of the electoral college can counter this argument by appealing to a system of "ranked choice" voting, like the one already implemented in the state of Maine.
Arguments Against the Electoral College
The most often used argument against the electoral college is that it is undemocratic. This was by design, but opponents of the electoral college question the foundations of these intentions. A state like Wyoming, the least populated state in the union, gets a disproportionate influence on presidential elections to what seems like an absurd degree. Even if the state's rights arguments are taken seriously, it could be argued that there are better ways to preserve the rights of individual states than subjecting people in more populated states to the values of rural Americans to such an absurd degree.
Part of this argument is the fact that many of these rural states are largely white, and this allows an already majority group, white Americans, to have an even greater amount of power on the government. This racial dimension is undeniable, and state's rights has been used as a shield for bigots on the past.
Another argument against the electoral college is it places all the emphasis on a handful of swing states. While proponents of the electoral college see this as a plus, opponents see it as a bad thing. It means that the president can campaign toward the whims of a small group of swing voters in key states. The reason opponents don't like this is they see it as making most votes in the election irrelevant, even if he overall views of their state may lean heavily toward one party or the other.
Many other countries have a parliamentary system, where the Prime Minister is appointed based on the election of the members of his party to parliament. This also takes the individual voter out of the direct election of the Prime Minister, but it places emphasis on the election of each individual member of parliament. Some would argue this is a far superior system to the electoral college system, even if the idea of a popular vote is flawed.
Another interesting argument against the electoral college is that it makes third party voting irrelevant, and even if a relevant third party candidate emerges it is almost impossible for them to win the presidency. Proponents of the electoral college might argue that third party voting would not be helped by a popular vote, since every vote would count each person might feel more obligated to vote for a candidate of one of the two major parties, even in what would now be seen as a safe blue or red state.
It is worth noting however, that countries with a parliamentary system often have robust third, fourth or even fifth parties. Ruling parties have to form alliances with other parties in order to get a majority, and such a system means that a lot more viewpoints get represented in the workings of government and the crafting legislation, then the system the United States currently has.
jim morel on January 25, 2020:
With GOP winning five in a row after only a few over a 200 year period, I say it is time to change.