As the electoral college meets to cast its votes today, we have two obvious choices, and a less-obvious one as well. We can avoid the topic altogether in an effort to avoid the discord, or we can engage with it, understanding that it will be contentious and divisive.
Alternatively, or in addition to those options, we can begin the work of learning more about our political system. We can start from a simple agreement that learning more about the process is a good idea, and we can take a small step toward becoming a student of American politics.
The electoral college is a complicated concept that can’t be easily explained in a few short paragraphs, but any attempt to understand our political system will require us to take the time to muddle through it.
The electoral college can best be explained by those who thoroughly understand it, so we recommend that you look to them for a thorough explanation.The good news is that there are dozens of videos that explain the complicated concept rather simply:
- TED Ed’s Does Your Vote Count: The Electoral College Explained
- The Associated Press’ Election 2020 Facts: What is the Electoral College?
- Vox’s The Electoral College, Explained
- Most major news outlets have created videos of their own, so watch a few of those in an attempt to hear multiple perspectives on the topic.
“[T]he election of the President is pretty well guarded … if the manner of it be not perfect, at least it is excellent.”
Consider some aspects of the electoral college in the U.S.
1. Five times in history, the winner of the popular vote was not the winner of the electoral college. In the last 20 years, it has happened twice.
- Hillary Clinton (D) won the popular vote against Donald Trump (R) in 2016.
- Al Gore (D) won the popular vote against George W. Bush (R) in 2000.
- Grover Cleveland (D) won the popular vote against Benjamin Harrison (R) in 1888.
- Samuel Tilden (D) won the popular vote against Rutherford B. Hayes (R) in 1876.
- Andrew Jackson won the popular vote against John Quincy Adams in 1824. (Both were Democratic-Republicans)
2. Federal law does not require electors to vote according to the state results, so occasionally “faithless electors” go rogue by voting for candidates other than the one to whom they are pledged. The Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that states can require electors to vote as pledged.
Each state’s electoral college laws are listed here.
3. At least 700 proposals have been introduced into Congress that would reform the electoral college process, more than any other constitutional issue.
4. Only two states, Nebraska and Maine, distribute their electoral college votes proportionally, giving votes to the state popular vote winner as well as to the popular vote winner in each congressional district. The remaining states are winner-take-all states in which the winner of the state popular vote gets all the electoral college votes.
5. A majority of Americans want to do away with the electoral college:
- Pew Research (2020) puts the number at 58 percent of Americans.
- Gallup (2020) puts the number at 61 percent.
- Hill-HarrisX (2020) says the number is 51 percent.
Opponents and supporters of the electoral college will passionately argue against and for its existence, and we won’t try to represent all their opinions here. Instead, dig into the details of the process for yourself and decide where you stand.
As a jumping-off point, consider the following:
- In 4 of the 5 instances of a popular vote/electoral college disparity, the results favored the same party. (The fifth episode was between two members of the same party.)
- After so many years without a popular vote/electoral vote disparity, why have we had two in the last 20 years?
- Why have the attempts to amend the process failed, and who was instrumental in blocking those efforts?
- Why do more than half of Americans disapprove of the process?
- Who does the process benefit in its current form?
- If the process doesn’t benefit the American people, are we ok with a process that serves other entities at the expense of the voters?
The process of trying to understand the complicated American political process won’t be simple, and it can easily feel overwhelming. Many people have shared that they aren’t sure where to start because the problem feels so big. Start here with the electoral college, and begin to understand a small piece of the puzzle.