Electoral College Politics

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For many years the elimination of the Electoral College in the U. S. was considered a stale topic for research papers. Arguing that it should be abolished was an academic argument at best because no one really thought that there would ever be enough support for the Constitutional change required to eliminate it. The Electoral College is now back in the headlines and newly relevant as a campaign issue because in two recent presidential elections—those in 2000 and 2016—the winner based on electoral votes was not the winner of the national popular vote; several candidates running for president in 2020 have come out in favor of abolishing the College.

The Electoral College might have made sense when it was established because of the difficulties of travel and the lack of rapid communication. An elector was trusted to represent the people of his state. Today, though, the process is pro forma since everyone knows what the outcome will be before the electors officially vote. Electors are bound by state law to vote as the state dictates, and all but two states—Maine and Nebraska—have a winner-take-all system that automatically gives all of the state’s electoral votes to the winner of the state popular vote. Thus even if the state popular vote is extremely close, all of the state’s votes go to the winning candidate. We learned in the 2016 election that electors will not go against the system to vote their conscience even with strong support from some constituents.

It is no wonder that many voters feel disenfranchised, and there is a good deal of validity to the argument that their votes don’t count. It is certainly not an incentive to get out and vote.

How do we approach this issue as a subject for teaching argument?

We can ask our students to write claims of fact, value, and policy about the Electoral College. Claims of fact can help them understand what the Electoral College is before they try to support more difficult claims. Claims of value can help them formulate their opinions about the College as it now exists. Claims of policy can express what should—or should not—be done about the Electoral College. One clear choice would be that the Electoral College should remain the means of selecting the American president. At the federal level, those who support eliminating the Electoral College have really only one avenue for change to offer: changing the Constitution.

A little research will show students the current situation at both the federal and the state level. Reformers have long assumed that change in our method of electing our president will need to be at the state level. States could individually choose to have their electoral votes divided proportionately by state popular vote. The most promising state action, however, is the passage of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This legislation dictates that all electoral votes for the state would go to the candidate winning the national popular vote. The individual state laws will go into effect only when enough state legislatures have passed Interstate Compact laws to control the number of votes needed in the Electoral College to win—270. At this point, 189 votes are committed to the compact if the total number needed is reached.

Change in the old institution that is the Electoral College is suddenly in play. Students looking at the issue as argument must consider what assumptions underlie the choice to support maintaining or eliminating the Electoral College. Partisanship at this point in history makes Republicans want to cling to an old system that for now gives them an advantage, and Democrats to change a system that for now puts them at a disadvantage. (The same partisanship-based decisions can be seen in the recent Republican-led changes to Senate rules, requiring only a simple majority for a number of confirmations – most notably, those of Supreme Court Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.) However, it may not always be the case that systems and choices benefiting one party today will continue to give them an advantage in the future. Partisanship aside, the most basic assumption underlying any change to make the Electoral College more fairly reflect the popular vote is that in a democracy, each citizen has the right to one vote, and one vote that counts.

Photo credit: “obama romney electoral college - end june” by brandopolo on Flickr, 6/30/12 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

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About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.