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PROFspectives: The Electoral College

News Story

Professors weigh in on this special post-election edition of PROFspectives.

After the 2012 Presidential Election, Donald J. Trump tweeted “the electoral college is a disaster for democracy.” Four years later, President-Elect Donald J. Trump has won the Presidency through the very same system, albeit losing the popular vote to Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton.

The Electoral College, through its valuing of individual states over the general population at large, has represented a conundrum in recent years. In two of the previous five elections, the candidate who has won the popular vote (in other words, the candidate who has received the most votes from the American population) has lost the Electoral College and thus, has not served as the President of the United States.

Given this phenomenon, we decided to ask our Pace profs: is preserving the electoral college a necessity going forward, or should it be re-evaluated?

Durahn Taylor, PhD
Assistant Professor, History
Dyson College of Arts and Sciences

The Electoral College was one of many constitutional compromises between the states. The benefits of this compromise are still evident in the way in which election contests are “fought” and “scored.” The state-by-state approach forces political parties and Presidential candidates to pay attention to the individual needs of each state. 

It’s one thing, for example, to say that you represent “the needs of the working people.” Yet, the needs of the working people in Massachusetts may be different from the needs of those in Kansas. Some things will be the same, yes, but each state has its unique set of budgetary challenges, dominant industries, and political dynamics.

If a President is to govern all the states, he or she must become familiar with these conditions as they exist within the individual states. As President, he or she will have to enact many of his or her policies by working with governors and local legislatures; that’s how our federal system is set up. A state-by-state contest gives a candidate that kind of training in dealing with each state’s leaders and addressing each state’s problems. The Electoral College is there to ensure that in an election, not only does every vote count, but every state counts as well.

James Gabberty, PhD
Associate Dean
Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems

There was no hacking involved (that I know about) concerning the Electoral College, which has served the country well for more than two centuries. I have become aware through the violent and unproductive riots in places like Oregon that a tiny fraction of the losing party would like to see it changed.

I have two questions: Would those same people calling for its overhaul have called for it had their side won(?), and, how many calling for an overhaul actually voted? Other than that, I’m sorry that I can’t provide anything other than support for our unique Electoral College.

George Picoulas
Political Science Program Coordinator, Faculty Adviser
Dyson College of Arts and Sciences 

The Electoral College is one compromise among many that exist in our political system. In their wisdom, the framers of the Constitution sought to elect a president by allowing a popular vote but within a controlled environment. Qualified citizenship (only white men with property could vote) and an appointed Senate were part of that safety mechanism. In deference to the states, the Electoral College’s electors can be allocated by different methods, like winner-take-all (WTA), by districts, or even by popular vote.

The way the Electoral College works nowadays creates the impression that votes don’t really count. For example, under the WTA system, many (often the majority) of the votes are thrown out. In states where one party dominates, it can discourage voter participation. It gets worse when someone wins the Electoral College vote but not the popular vote, as it has happened five times in our history, twice in the last 16 years. 

Americans nowadays have less faith in the integrity of their institutions, including the democratic process. All institutions need a strong consensus to maintain their legitimacy and effectiveness. It seems that such a consensus has eroded. Increased polarization, government gridlock, economic anxiety of the middle class, irresponsible leaders, and media who cry that the Electoral system is rigged, are factors in undermining the legitimacy of our institutions. When national elections produce a split verdict between the popular and the Electoral vote, it gets worse.

Fortunately, the Electoral College can be changed, very democratically, and not necessarily via a constitutional amendment, which would require super majorities in Congress and states. If the people think the Electoral College is an anachronism, they can change the way their own states allocate electors. Currently 11 states have passed the National Popular Vote compact by which they commit to allocate all of their electors to the winner of the national popular vote. A variation of this would be to allocate their electors in proportion to the popular vote in their own state. So, if democracy is alive and well, let’s leave it to the people to decide what is fair in electing their leaders.

Roy Girasa, JD, PhD
Professor, Legal Studies and Taxation
Lubin School of Business

The election of President-Elect Donald J. Trump, wherein he received fewer votes nationally than his Democrat opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, raised the issue of whether the continued use of the Electoral College to name a President of the United States is undemocratic and contrary to the popular will.

This election is the fifth time in American history when the President received fewer votes than his opponent, the others being John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson in 1824; Rutherford B. Hayes versus Samuel J. Tilden in 1876; Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland in 1888; George W. Bush against Al Gore in 2000; and finally the current election of 2016. On the surface it appears to violate the basic integrity of the democratic process. Nevertheless, and perhaps revealing the innate bias of my residence in Vermont, but for the electoral system, candidates would likely ignore most states with small populations like Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire in favor of obtaining the maximum number of votes in a few highly populated states.

There may be some credence of the claim by pro-Trump supporters that had it been a popular vote process, he would have devoted extensive time to California and elsewhere where he had little or no chance of obtaining a positive electoral vote and that he may have received a majority popular vote total nationally. Perhaps the more feasible solution would be to emulate the states of Maine and Nebraska which allot electoral votes to a majority vote within each Congressional district rather than winner-take-all in a given state.