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We the People civics lesson: The pros and cons of an Electoral College

UPDATED: Mon., May 3, 2021

Sen. Karl Mundt, R-S.D., poses in 1963 with a map showing the key states that then held the most number of votes in the Electoral College. He proposed a constitutional amendment that would have required all states to distribute their electoral vote like Maine and Nebraska, which allocate two electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the most number of votes statewide and one vote to the candidate with the most votes in each congressional district.  (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Sen. Karl Mundt, R-S.D., poses in 1963 with a map showing the key states that then held the most number of votes in the Electoral College. He proposed a constitutional amendment that would have required all states to distribute their electoral vote like Maine and Nebraska, which allocate two electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the most number of votes statewide and one vote to the candidate with the most votes in each congressional district. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
By Michael Ritter FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s Question: Why is the Electoral College important?

The Electoral College specifies how the American president is elected. Official answers deemed acceptable to the U.S. Citizenship test question on why the Electoral College is important are either this, or how the Electoral College acts as a compromise between popular election and congressional selection of the president. The reality of the Electoral College, however, is more nuanced.

Article 2, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution describes the Electoral College. Each state has electors equal to the number of senators and representatives a state has in Congress, with state legislatures deciding on the method whereby electors are selected. With the exceptions of Maine and Nebraska, whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote in a state wins all that state’s Electoral College votes.

Electors can be anyone except federal public officeholders, are selected by state political parties and confirmed by state election boards, and, in present-day America, tend to be party loyalists and donors. Under the current Electoral College vote distribution, 535 Electoral College votes come from the American states, with the 23rd Amendment, passed in 1961, allocating three more Electoral College votes to Washington, D.C. Out of this total of 538 Electoral College votes, a candidate must win at least 270 to become president.

When one votes for the presidency, one is voting for a slate of electors, who formally cast their electoral votes for candidates in state capitals in December of presidential election years.

Even though American citizens cast their ballots for presidential electors in early November of election years, the electors will not convene until December, and then the Electoral College winner will not be formally confirmed by Congress until January of the following year, before the presidential inauguration. While this staggered schedule of electing electors who then later select the president may sound surprising, these procedures are established by a combination of U.S. constitutional provisions and laws going back to the first presidential election in 1788.

Presidential electors have not always been selected by state popular votes. In fact, prominent methods used earlier in American history include selections of electors by state legislatures or by popular votes in separate House districts. Since 1880, however, most states have employed statewide popular votes to select electors. Maine and Nebraska use the district method.

A closer examination of the Electoral College’s formation during the 1787 Constitutional Convention provides further insights on this American institution. The Electoral College was one of the last considerations of the Constitutional Convention. Before adopting this method, the Convention considered selection of president by Congress, by single votes per state in the House of Representatives, by state legislatures, by governors and by a national popular vote.

Some evidence from the Constitutional Convention and scholarship suggests that the crafters of the Constitution intended electors to act as enlightened intermediaries, balancing the popular interests of the American electorate with the need to elect highly qualified presidents.

Additionally, Alexander Hamilton, a Convention delegate, argued the Electoral College would minimize the potential for corruption in presidential elections because electors do not have permanent government positions that could tempt them, and because electors vote on a single day in different state capitals, thus lowering the likelihood that a faction or party would be able to subvert the election from a national institution like Congress.

Perhaps surprisingly, other scholarship suggests the Electoral College was chosen not because everyone at the Convention thought this was the best presidential election method, but because they had already spent nine weeks drafting the Constitution, and, according to James Madison, were “not exempt from a degree of the hurrying influence produced by fatigue and impatience in all such bodies.” Related to this “hurrying influence” point, other research indicates the Electoral College was based less on democratic principles and more on a series of compromises – such as balancing the interests of less and more populous states, as well as slave and non-slave states – to forge a mutually acceptable mechanism for choosing a president.

The institution has been a subject of debate since 1787.

Proponents argue the Electoral College prevents the American party system from splintering into more than two parties, promotes federalism, protects minority interests, and gives presidential candidates an incentive to visit even the least populous states during presidential campaigns.

Critics argue the Electoral College does not protect equality of voting rights, occasionally results in the election of presidents who most Americans vote against and encourages presidential candidates to mainly campaign in competitive states with substantial numbers of electoral votes. Critics also point out the Electoral College does not work entirely like the Constitutional Convention intended.

In response to these differing positions, defenders and critics of the Electoral College have suggested several courses of action.

One is to keep the Electoral College. This would preserve the advantages of the Electoral College, as noted by its defenders.

Other options are for more states to adopt the district system, to award additional Electoral College votes (beyond the 538 already in existence) to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote, or to eliminate the Electoral College and adopt a national popular vote.

Each of these proposals, according to proponents, would make voting rights for presidential elections more equal and encourage more people to vote because they would be less likely to feel like their vote was being wasted.

Regardless of the debates and proposed reforms surrounding the Electoral College, this selection mechanism is indeed a fixture of American politics.

The reality of the Electoral College, though, is more complicated than indicated by the acceptable answers to the Electoral College question on the U.S. Citizenship test.

Michael Ritter is assistant professor of political science at Washington State University in Pullman. 

This article is part of a Spokesman-Review partnership with the Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

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