Written by Arjun Gheewala, Class of 2019
In wake of the surprising election outcome, anti-Trump protests have brought the electoral college into the spotlight. Many argue for the elimination of the electoral college in favor of a voting system that would simply focus on popular votes, viewing it as a fair alternative to electing our country’s highest representative.
Despite Hillary Clinton having garnered over 900,000 more individual votes than Trump, Trump received 58 more electoral votes, which are votes representatives cast on behalf of their states based on its popular votes. So, how does a candidate that received fewer popular votes still win the general election? Why do we have the electoral college?
Alexander Hamilton wrote about the electoral college in the “Federalist No. 68” (1788), stating that it was not only vital, but “desirable” for the American democracy. Fearing submission to another monarchy, Hamilton advocated that the electoral college’s meant Americans could choose a president counter to the popular choice.
The fear was founded on legitimate concern that the US could fall under the reign of a charming elitist monarch who would win the popular vote and later act against the interest of the free people. To eliminate this potential catastrophe, the Founding Fathers built a fail-safe method to protect democracy. Now, this unfortunately also means that popular votes garnered from one region are only meaningful until a certain margin is achieved.
Flaws of the electoral system were known by the sixth presidential election in 1824 when neither Andrew Jackson, nor his opponent John Q. Adams, received enough electoral votes to win the general election. Jackson narrowly beat Adams in both popular and electoral votes but got the short end of the stick when the Adams became president from a vote by the House of Representatives. Since then, five presidential elections have been the subject of this controversy due to flaws in the electoral process.
But let’s be honest: we have moved past legitimate fears of electing a monarch. More importantly, our voters have significantly more ways to vet our candidates now than in the 1800s. Our population is more literate and has access to the Internet.
The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) estimates that the US had an approximate white illiteracy rate of 14 percent in the 1820s, compared to less than 0.1 percent total today. A quick search on any candidate reveals multiple articles on how many emails they’ve deleted or how many bankruptcies they’ve declared. But literacy and the Internet aside, our nation has numerous resources to compensate for any lack of knowledge. Coast-to-coast political rallies, nationwide campaign broadcasts, and relentless news coverage bring each election into every American living room. Awareness and information are pervasive.
While the system made sense 200 years ago, today, however, it mocks the ability for our developed nation’s citizens to make an accurate and informed decision on who they want as president. In the 200 years since the electoral college was ratified by the 12th amendment, it has not once been used for obstructing the seating of an unfit candidate. All five times have been technicalities that worked in the favor of the unpopular candidate. Every losing candidate in the five disputed elections has received more popular votes than the winning candidate. The most undeniable fact against the electoral college is that it was designed to avoid a totalitarian leader. In stark contrast to the 1800s, this kind of fear is more than irrational at present.
Perhaps what’s most surprising is that we seem to understand that the electoral college doesn’t make sense. According to Gallup, an overwhelming 65 percent of Americans support swapping the electoral college for popular votes. In contrast, 56 percent of Republicans support keeping the electoral college. Interestingly enough, out of the five electoral college controversies in American history, Republicans have benefited every time.
This isn’t a question about parties. The system should be rethought for the sake of fairness in voting. What is the point of advocating plurality of choice and encouraging vocalization of opinion if ultimately the electoral college looms overhead?
We share this antiquated system with only eight other countries including Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Trinidad and Tobago and Pakistan. The one characteristic most of these countries have in common is their relatively new and unstable government. These modest sized countries are faced with real threats, like a hostile takeover or infiltration of a radical faction in their political system. Under such severe circumstances, it is understandable that an electoral system can help protect the country’s democracy.
Alternatives to the current voting system have been proposed several times. But America’s bipartisan political landscape severely limits the creativity of new voting systems. Third parties in America have historically received far less votes than their bipartisan counterparts. In the 2016 election, over 95 percent of American’s voted Democrat or Republican.
There are no two ways around it: the majority of voters who cast their ballot on November 9 wanted Hillary Clinton to be sworn on Capitol Hill this January. But only (and truly only) because of our 200-year-old fear of the next monarch, Donald Trump will be our 45th president instead.