U.S. presidential election (37): why the Electoral College should be scrapped and why it won’t be

The counting is not quite over in the US presidential election but it looks as if Donald Trump won a comfortable majority in the Electoral College but Hillary Clinton won 200,000 or so more votes nationwide. How can this be? It’s because of how the Electoral College works.

The President is not elected directly by the voters but by an Electoral College representing each state on the basis of a combination of the number of members in the Senate (two for each state regardless of size) and the number of members in the House of Representatives (roughly proportional to population). The District of Columbia, which has no voting representation in Congress, has three Electoral College votes. In effect, therefore, the Presidential election is not one election but 51.

The total Electoral College vote is 538. This means that, to become President, a candidate has to win at least 270 electoral votes. The voting system awards the Electoral College votes from each state to delegates committed to vote for a certain candidate in a “winner take all” system, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska (which award their Electoral College votes according to Congressional Districts rather than for the state as a whole).

This system of election means that a candidate can win the largest number of votes nationwide but fail to win the largest number of votes in the Electoral College and therefore fail to become President. Indeed, in practice, this has happened four times in US history: 1876, 1888, 2000 and now 2016.

If this seems strange (at least to non-Americans), the explanation is that the ‘founding fathers’ who drafted the American Constitution did not wish to give too much power to the people and so devised a system that gives the ultimate power of electing the President to members of the Electoral College. The same Constitution, however, enables each state to determine how its members in the Electoral College are chosen and since the 1820s states have chosen their electors by a direct vote of the people. The United States is the only example in the world of an indirectly elected executive president.

In the event that the Electoral College is evenly divided between two candidates or no candidate secures a majority of the votes, the constitution provides that the choice of President is made by the House of Representatives and the choice of Vice-President is made by the Senate. In the first case, the representatives of each state have to agree collectively on the allocation of a single vote. In the second case, each senator has one vote.

Clearly the Electoral College is utterly inappropriate to the modern age and it has delivered the ‘wrong’ result in two of the last four elections. Opinion polls show substantial support for a direct presidential election. So the system should be changed, right? It won’t be though because a change will require an amendment to the US Constitution and, in the current divisive political situation of the USA, any substantive change to the Constitution is effectively impossible to achieve.

Of course, the Constitution could be changed – but this is really difficult. First, a proposed amendment has to secure a two-thirds vote of members present in both houses of Congress. Then three-quarters of the state legislatures have to ratify the proposed change (this stage may or may not be governed by a specific time limit). Even the Equal Rights Amendment failed to meet these thresholds after a 10 year process.

There have been 27 amendments to the US Constitution (although one was simply a repeal of another). The first 10 amendments – constituting the Bill of Rights – were taken together shortly after the drafting of the original Constitution. Of the other 17 (effectively 16), one was the abolition of slavery, but this took half a century and a bloody civil war. Other amendments brought about woman’s suffrage (1920) and votes for those aged 18 (1971), but these were simply measures introduced about the same time in other democratic states.

My proposition is that any constitutional change that is controversial – for instance, longer terms for Congressmen or strong controls on election expenditure or effective controls on gun ownership or abolition of the Electoral College– is effectively  impossible to achieve. This makes the US Constitution the oldest and most inflexible in the world and in large part explains why the US political system is dysfunctional and will remain so.


  • Philip bowyer

    Unfortunately you are probably correct Roger. Besides for wanting to keep political power in the hands of those in Washington there was a quite genuine objective of trying to ensure that one state with a big population could not just override the desires of the rest of the country. We take unity of USA for granted now. It was not so obvious in those early days. Population distribution and more importantly communications have changed significantly since. It a bit like the Scots or Northern Irish not wanting to be overruled by the English on Brexit.

  • Roger Darlington

    I understand the original intention with 13 states of uneven size, but now that there are 50 states (plus DC), the Electoral College just does not make sense. But the Constitution is frozen in time.

  • otto

    The National Popular Vote bill is 61% of the way to guaranteeing the presidency in 2020 to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

    All voters would be valued equally in presidential elections, no matter where they live.

    Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
    No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of predictable outcomes.
    No more handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill was approved this year by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).
    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes.
    The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the way to guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate with the most popular votes in the country


  • Andy

    Following on from Otto’s post, here’s an article in the Guardian.
    Looks promising.
    And surely it doesn’t need to be passed by enough states to guarantee 270 EC votes? Wouldn’t it just need to be enough to “tip the balance” in favour of the candidate with the most popular votes?

  • Andy

    Further to my previous post, I have now understood that the states who’ve passed this bill have – for reasons not at all clear to me – agreed it will only come into force when it has been passed in enough states to produce 270 EC votes. Why???

    Are they afraid to act democratically without ‘safety in numbers’?

    Or are they just very poor mathematicians?

  • Calvin Allen

    It is certainly clear to this outsider that things need to be different next time, although this is something that US voters need to sort out for themselves.

    However, I’m increasingly concerned that the nature of Trump’s early appointments not only gives the lie to those who plead that Trump will act differently in office, but also that it is abundantly clear that this massive jump to the right is not what the US people, collectively, voted for. Whether or not Sanders would have been the answer from a Democrat point of view, it looks that social democrats in the US and the UK have something to learn from each other in terms of what is happening in the political scene in the post-election US and post-Brexit UK.


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