By: Samuel Mueller
Presidential elections. Fun! The 2016 election showcased a plethora of passion, debate and yes, controversy. The nation saw the surprise victory of Donald Trump after Hillary Clinton seemed to have more of the nation’s support. The news organization Real Clear Politics averaged the results of Trump vs.Clinton polls, and the Democrat appeared to have 47.5% of Americans’ votes, while the Republican had 45.3%. In the days before the election, Clinton seemed poised to win. Then the votes were counted.
Although Clinton won the popular vote by about 2.8 million votes, Trump assumed the presidency after winning the majority of votes in the Electoral College. It’s not the first time that has happened.. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote to Republican George W. Bush, who went on to become president. These results outraged many Democrats, who were angry the election went to the candidate with fewer votes. However, since the beginning of the nation’s history, the Electoral College has decided who took the presidency. The popular vote only serves as a measure to show the overall support for candidates.
So how exactly are our presidents elected, and what is the Electoral College?
Each state has a certain number of electors assigned to it based on that state’s population. The number of electors is the same number of people in Congress from that state. Therefore, each state has at least three electors (for the two senators and minimum of one representative in the House). California, the most populous state, has 55 electoral votes (and 55 members in Congress). New Jersey has 14 electoral votes. There are 538 electors who vote in the Electoral College.
All candidates, supported by their political party, have their own set of 538 electors assigned throughout the country, but those electors won’t vote unless their candidate wins the majority vote in each state. When a candidate wins the majority vote in each state, they “win” that state. This win allows the electors supporting that candidate to vote for them. So if a candidate wins 51% of the vote in New Jersey, they gain 14 electors who will cast their votes for that candidate. The electors of the other candidates will not be able to vote because their candidates did not win that state. This winner-takes-all system exists in 48 states. Nebraska and Maine have systems in which the majority winner wins two electoral votes, and the remaining electoral votes are distributed proportionally to the percentage of votes won.
The electors vote after Election Day, when it is decided which electors from which party are eligible to vote. When a candidate receives the majority vote in the Electoral College, 270 votes, he or she wins the presidency.
In two of the last five elections, the candidate who won the Electoral College vote lost the popular vote. Movement for the abolition of the College has grown in recent years because of this. Arguments from both sides are listed below.
Argument: The Electoral College should be abolished.
The Electoral College is an outdated system that doesn’t properly represent the United States. The popular vote is a stronger system that equally values all votes. Each vote is a direct vote for the presidency, not a vote to vote for somebody else to make a decision. The simple majority better demonstrates the representative democracy in our country.
First off, the value of each citizen’s vote depends on the state they live in. The math here is compelling. According to the Census Bureau, Wyoming has a population of 532,668, and Texas has a population of 24,326,974 (about 45 times greater). Wyoming currently has three electoral votes, and Texas has 32. By using simple math, it can be found that in Wyoming, there is one elector per 177,566 people. On the other hand, Texas averages one elector for every 760,217 people. This inequally represents people’s views, and prevents one vote from mattering as much as someone else’s in a different state. This is a problem the popular vote entirely avoids by counting each vote as equal, regardless of location.
Next, a candidate can win a state with the simplest majority. In elections, states are classified as either swing states or safe states. Safe states, which have historically voted for one party, ensure a candidate support. For example, California and New York are safe states for Democrats, while Texas and Georgia are safe states for Republicans. On the other hand, swing states such as Florida and Ohio have been won by both parties over the years. Under the Electoral College, almost half of a state’s support for a candidate won’t count if they lose the majority vote. This can lose a candidate millions of votes.
Another issue is the theoretical outcome of an election under the Electoral College system. A candidate can win the majority vote in the 12 largest states and win the Electoral College; however, this is only about 21.8% of the nation’s population. This is a massive misrepresentation of the nation. Although improbable, an election similar to the hypothetical outcome previously stated is still possible. It certainly should not be.
Lastly, the possibility of faithless electors is very real. These are members of the Electoral College who vote for a candidate that their electoral district did not vote for. Even worse, there is nothing to truly stop faithless electors. Only 29 states have legislation that penalize faithless electors, but the other 21 states have no laws stopping the disruption of democracy. Although in the history of the United States, 99% of electors have voted according to their electoral district’s majority, the fact that such a situation is even possible should be compelling to abolish the Electoral College.
Argument: The Electoral College should Stay
The Electoral College not outdated; its unique style and rules ensure a more accurate representation of our democracy than what the popular vote ever could.
The practice of the Electoral College is not to steal away the idea of a majority vote. It was designed so that it’s extremely unlikely a candidate will win the popular vote but not the Electoral College, and vice versa. The election of 2016 is only the fifth time out of 57 elections in which the winner lost the popular vote, so the system’s overall goal is still accomplished.
The College requires that the candidate's support come from all across the nation, not just in one concentrated area. Although winning the 12 largest states guarantees the presidency, those 12 states are spread all around the nation, with varying cultures, styles and opinions. The Electoral College considers geography as well as population. Under the popular vote, a candidate could become president by winning only coastal states, and not states in the center of the nation. Although these two populations may be equivalent, winning only due to coastal states does not represent all Americans; in this scenario president could act in the interest of only some parts of the nation, not a varied population. This is why the popular vote does not represent the American people as well as the College.
Additionally, the Electoral College protects the influence of minority voters, groups that may be prominent, but do not have the complete majority. In the popular vote system, these groups would be marginalized and their opinions and ideals would not have an effect in the election. However, the Electoral College protects minority votes by ensuring a system where even smaller groups can have a larger impact on the election.
The Electoral College is not perfect. It has flaws, but it protects the diversity of America by balancing the densely populated areas of the country with the less dense areas, considering location as well as population.
What does Biotech think of the Electoral College?
A survey was sent out to Biotech’s students, posing the question “Should the Electoral College be abolished and replaced with a popular vote?” as well as an optional text box question asking to support that choice. 76 people, almost one-fourth of Biotech’s student population, responded.
The results were dead even. 38 people voted to keep the Electoral College, and 38 voted to abolish it. Many people also left detailed responses regarding their vote, fiercely supporting either side.
Here’s one answer for keeping the College: “The Electoral College preserves federalism, encourages candidates to build national coalitions, and grants definitive electoral outcomes. It requires a presidential candidate to win simultaneous elections across 50 states and the District of Columbia. If we let the popular vote choose, then heavily densely populated urban areas would be best represented, and these areas tend to almost have a majority of Democrats. If the popular vote won we would always have a Democratic president and not every American would have an equal voice.”
An answer against the Electoral College: “Our President should be a representative of the people of the United States. Therefore, the President should be whoever the majority of people in the US support. A popular vote is the only fair way to determine what portion of the United States supports any given candidate. In addition, the Electoral College system makes voting unfair for individuals. Because some states have more power than others in the electoral college system, not everyone's vote is equal. A voter in Arizona, for instance, has almost more influence in the outcome of an election than a voter in Kentucky would due to the different amount of electoral votes allotted to each state.”
The 50 open-ended responses show the students’ interest on the topic of the Electoral College and the intense debate about its existence. Even in a high school, opinions are split right down the middle.