The Outdated Notion of the Electoral College

Has an old compromise outlived its utility?

The Electoral College was created in 1787 in Philadelphia at a constitutional convention. At that time no other country in the world directly elected its chief executive and the Founding Fathers were forging new policies, free of tyrannical kings and despots.

Delegates debated for months, searching for a solution that would avoid Congress being directly involved with picking a president, avoid a strictly popular vote (one argument being that 18th-century voters would not be knowledgeable about the candidates, especially in rural areas), and avoid a dangerously powerful, populist president.

The delegates landed on the compromise of the Electoral College: electoral intermediaries, or “electors,” each state, and those electors would cast the actual ballots for the presidency. But how many electors would each state get? More debate ensued.

In 1787 approximately 40% of people living in Southern states were enslaved Black people who could not vote. Southern delegates like James Madison of Virginia (where 60% of its residents were enslaved Black people) knew that if slaves were not counted amongst the population when assigning electors, Southern states would hold less power that those in the North and the compromise would not pass. This ushered in the controversial “three-fifths compromise” in which each enslaved Black person was counted as three-fifths of a resident when calculating representatives, electors and federal taxes.

An unpopular approach in modern times

To win a presidential election in the US, the candidate and his or her vice presidential running mate must capture 270 of the 538 total electoral votes. This approach has led to 5 instances of presidents being elected to office despite losing the popular vote, including 2 in recent history: John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), George W. Bush (2000), and Donald Trump (2016).

According to a 2020 Gallup Poll, 61% of Americans favored amending the U.S. Constitution to replace the Electoral College with a popular vote system as the country was heading into the 2020 presidential elections – a 6% increase from the same poll in April 2019.

The poll further showed that the preference for electing the president based on the popular vote is driven by 89% of Democrats and 68% of independents. Only 23% of those who consider themselves Republicans share this view, with 77% of them supporting the current system of the Electoral College.

But Wilfred Codrington, an American legal scholar, associate professor at Brooklyn Law School, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice posits that the adoption of the popular vote, and the abolishment of the Electoral College, should be a non-partisan issue. “There are millions of Republicans whose votes are wasted, just as there are millions of Democrats whose votes are wasted, because they live in states that are fully red or fully blue, or mostly red or mostly blue,” he says. “They’re being ignored. And I think that it’s in their interest to think about the popular vote as something that will make their political system more responsive to their interests.”