Jan 25, 2018 in Research

The Electoral College and Democracy


The Electoral College is the constitutionally mandated mechanism for selecting the president of the United States. A total of 538 votes exist in the Electoral College and are distributed among the American States based on the combined number of senators and representatives each state has on the United States Congress (Sabato and Ernst 133). In this system, only the candidate who wins a majority in the Electoral College can attain the presidency. The paper details why the framers of the constitution came up with the Electoral College and how it works. It also outlines the pros and cons of the Electoral College and finally evaluates whether the Electoral College is democratic or not. Electoral College is the most controversial and unique aspect of American democracy and; therefore, it is inconsistent with the cherished principle of one person one vote.  

How the Electoral College Currently Works

The framers of the Electoral College wanted a president who was independent, and they wanted the states to have a direct role in his election. The framers assumed that the state legislatures would choose the electors and people would vote for an elector who would then vote for president. McClanahan indicates that the whole system was designed to prevent direct democracy and its attendant evil of demagoguery, including the corruptions of money and patronage, and preserve the power of the states (13).  The framers created the Electoral College to stand between the people and the election of the president. The Electoral College was their answer to the potential abuse of power by the masses. The Electoral College was created to ensure that each state mattered in the presidential election because the electors would be chosen by the states to represent their interests.

The Electoral College is composed of electors selected by the states of the United States to cast the votes that elect the president of the United States. Each state appoints a number of electors equal to the number of senators and representatives the state has in the United States congress, and those electors meet in their respective states to cast votes for president (Rowley and Schneider 206).  Each state receives a number of electors equal to the number of senators and representatives it has in congress.

A candidate must receive a majority of the electoral votes (270) out of 358 to win the election. The electors meet in December in each state’s capital to cast their ballots. Genovese says that, in January, a joint session of Congress opens and agrees to the electoral votes submitted by the states (170). The people have direct involvement today in the selection process than in the past. On Election Day, voters go to the polls and cast their ballots for a slate of electors. Electors are usually activist members of the party whose presidential candidate carried the state (Sabato and Ernst 133). A candidate who receives a plurality of the votes in the state receives all the electoral votes. If one candidate gets votes from a majority of the electors, that person becomes the president. Rowley and Schneider indicated that if no candidate gets a majority vote that is 270, then the House of Representatives selects the president from the three candidates with the largest number of electoral votes (206).


The Main Pros and Cons of the Electoral College

The Electoral College is criticized because the popular vote winner might not be elected president. This happened in the 2000's presidential election when Al Gore won the popular vote by roughly 500,000 votes but lost the electoral vote. In 1876, 1888 and 2000, the Electoral College named as president the candidate who came in second in the popular balloting (Woshinsky 190). The second disadvantage of the Electoral College is that it can exaggerate the winner’s victory making it appear as if the public has given the newly elected president a mandate. For example, in 1984 Ronald Reagan won 58.8% of the popular vote, but 98% of the electoral vote (Genovese 170). In both 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton failed to win a majority of the popular vote but still won roughly 70% of the electoral vote in both elections.  

The proponents of the Electoral College argue that it protects the smaller states.  Because of the two electors each state receives despite population electors in Wyoming represent fewer people than electors in California. Without the Electoral College, a candidate could run solely in the most heavily populated states and win while ignoring rural states. The proponents of the Electoral College argue that a direct election would raise the potential for voter fraud or recounts (Genovese 170). The system provides minority voters with greater voice in the election. For example, instead of comprising roughly 10% of the national electorate, in some states African Americans might make up 20-25% of a state’s electorate.   

An Evaluation of Whether the Electoral College is Democratic

Democracy is defined as a rule by the people where every member must have equal and effective opportunity to vote and all votes must be counted as equal. The Electoral College is essentially undemocratic because the electoral vote often deviates from the popular will, and it is the winner-take all system. This is based on the criteria that all votes must be counted as equal. States which cast only three electoral votes such as Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming, are disadvantaged compared to states such as California with 55 votes, which constitute more than 20% of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency. The system essentially assigns to the winner the votes of the people who voted against that candidate, and not everyone’s vote counts equally on a national level. Streb says that there is no guarantee that the majority or even the plurality, winner of the popular vote will become president (142). While democracy dictates that the process of electing the president should develop a national campaign and produce a winner who has a popular majority. The Electoral College system has the potential to elect a presidential candidate who obtains an electoral vote majority but fewer popular votes than their opponents.

The method used to determine a state’s number of electors is not democratic because when people vote in a presidential election, they cast their vote not for a presidential candidate, but for an elector pledged to support that candidate, which renders it undemocratic. By giving a fixed number of electoral votes per state that is adjusted only after each census, the Electoral College does not accurately reflect state population thus rendering the process undemocratic. Neale further asserts that the process of electing electors is undemocratic because the office of presidential elector itself and the resultant faithless elector phenomenon provide opportunities for political mischief and deliberate distortion of the voter’s choice (5).  


In conclusion, supporters of the Electoral College argue that violations of the majority rule are just an example of constitutional provisions that require supermajorities to take action. Unlike in other democracies, the Electoral College is different because it allows minority to take action that is to select the president. It is important to note that the winner-take-all system effectively disenfranchises everyone who voted for the candidates. 


Related essays