Thursday, April 4, 2024

Understanding the Electoral College

Part of an ongoing, occasional series looking at the state of democracy and the political process in the United States in light of the 2024 presidential election.

Exploring both the merits and the drawbacks to the Electoral College system in U.S. presidential elections. What are the main arguments that supporters of the Electoral College system make? What are the main arguments that opponents of the Electoral College system cite? We also briefly look at U.S. presidential elections in which the Electoral College vote, and not the popular vote, decided the outcome.

The Electoral College: Pros and Cons

In the United States, when it's time to elect a president, we use a system called the Electoral College. This system has both good things about it (pros) and not-so-good things about it (cons), depending on your view and who you're rooting for. Let's take a closer look at both sides and see if we can break it down for you, as it can be a fairly-complicated system to understand.

Pros of the Electoral College:

Balancing power: The Electoral College gives smaller states a fair chance in presidential elections. Each state gets a certain number of electoral votes based on its population, so the system allows states with fewer people to have a say in the outcome, as well.

Stability and certainty: The Electoral College helps ensure a clear winner in presidential elections. Once a candidate wins the majority of electoral votes, it's clear who will become the next president, which can prevent long, drawn-out disputes and uncertainty.

Preserving federalism: The Electoral College reflects the federalist system of government in the United States. It maintains the balance of power between the states and the federal government, allowing states to play a significant role in choosing the president.

Cons of the Electoral College:

Winner-take-all system: In most states, the candidate who wins the popular vote gets all of the state's electoral votes. This means that even if a candidate wins by a small margin, they get all of the state's electoral votes, which can end up leading to a disparity between the popular vote and the electoral vote in the end. We'll explore some real examples near the end of this post where this was the case. It is certainly possible, and it has happened, where presidential candidates won the popular vote but lost the actual election due to how the Electoral College works.

Disproportionate influence: Because of the winner-take-all system, candidates tend to focus their campaign efforts on "battleground" states, also called "swing" states, where the outcome is uncertain. This can make voters in other states feel like their votes don't matter as much.

Potential for disputed elections: In rare cases, as previously noted, the Electoral College can result in a candidate winning the presidency without winning the popular vote. This has happened a few times in U.S. history and can lead to controversy and questions about the legitimacy of the election and the system we have in place for deciding elections.

Examples of U.S. presidential elections decided by the Electoral College:

1824: In the presidential election of 1824, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but did not win enough electoral votes to secure the presidency. The election was ultimately decided by the House of Representatives, who chose John Quincy Adams as the winner.

1876: In the election of 1876, Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but fell one electoral vote short of the majority needed to win the presidency. A special commission was formed to resolve the dispute, and Rutherford B. Hayes was ultimately awarded the presidency.

2000: In the presidential election of 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote but narrowly lost the electoral vote to George W. Bush after a recount in Florida. This led to a prolonged legal battle and ultimately a Supreme Court decision in Bush's favor.

In conclusion, while the Electoral College system has its advantages in balancing power and providing stability, it also has drawbacks such as the potential for disproportionate influence and disputed elections, as we have seen at times throughout history.

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