In the past twenty years, two presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, have won the presidency with much controversy. Bush’s triumph over Al Gore had to be decided in the Supreme Court, where the justices decided that Bush did in fact win. Their decision was based on the deadline that a state had to determine it’s electors six days before the electoral college met. The decision did not sit well with many Americans, even after Gore conceded. Then, in 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton with 304 to 227 electoral votes, with Trump carrying 30 states to Clinton’s 20. Trump avoided the recount controversy that Bush faced, but Clinton still had 2.7 million more overall votes than him. This election reignited the discussion about the electoral college, and it’s viability in the modern United States.
A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll conducted from March 22-24 found that 50% of voters want to eliminate the electoral college and only conduct a national popular vote, 34% want to keep the college, while 16% are undecided. The poll also measured the partisan support for the proposal. Democrats favor the popular vote 72% to 16% and Republicans favor the electoral college 57% to 30%. Independents prefer the popular vote by 46% to 29%, aligning more closely with Democrats. While support is clearly split along partisan lines, a plurality of all Americans want to change the system. Half of all voters don’t approve of the system they vote in. The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates reflect this shifting attitude, or maybe they’ve just caught wind of it. Out of the fourteen serious candidates running for the Democratic nomination, seven want to abolish the electoral college, three want to keep it (for now) and possibly reform it, and four are undecided, but lean towards reforming or are open to eliminating it.
Eliminating the electoral college is dangerous idea. It would focus almost all campaigning and attention in major media markets and metropolitan areas, and pass over “flyover country” that still contain large swaths of the electorate. The voices, and votes, of many Americans wouldn’t matter. Keeping electoral power in the hands of the states protects America’s status as a union of distinct states and helps America remain relatively decentralized.
However, some reform is necessary for the electoral college to remain relevant in the eyes of the modern voter. The best way to make the system more effective is to allocate votes by congressional district, not just by state.
In 48 states, if candidates win the state’s popular vote, they win all of that state’s electoral votes. This has been dubbed as the “winner-take-all” system. However, in two states, Maine and Nebraska, votes are allocated based on both the “winner-take-all” system and based on the state’s congressional districts. With this system, the winner of the state’s popular vote gets two electoral votes, and the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district gets a vote. Maine gives out two votes based on the districts, while Nebraska gives out three. This system is superior to the “winner-take-all” system. Awarding electoral votes based on both the total popular vote and the congressional districts allows for all areas across states to be represented. Expanding this to the entire nation would allow for every vote in every district to matter more.
With the congressional district system, election will be less lopsided than they have been in the past. In the 2016 election, if the congressional district system was in place nationwide, Trump would have gained 290 electoral votes to Clinton’s 248. In the actual 2016 election, Trump swept Clinton with 304 to 227 electoral votes. While the result of the election doesn’t change in the congressional district system, the map looks a little different than in the actual election.
Some states are much closer than others in this system. Minnesota’s electoral votes are split down the middle, and Virginia awards only one more electoral vote to Clinton than Trump.
Overall, implementing the congressional district system would make presidential elections more competitive. No state would be worthless to campaign in, and candidates wouldn’t win blowout victories with only a small majority of votes. The elections would still be competitive, but also be a little more stable. For instance, look at Texas. It has been a solidly Republican state for decades. In the congressional district system, while Clinton is nowhere close to beating Trump, she still would have gained 14 electoral votes from the state. And in notoriously blue California, Trump would still get blown out of the water, but he would walk away with a consolation prize of seven electoral votes.
With this system, candidates spend more time in states they normally wouldn’t, encouraging their supporters there. Even in states that lean heavily to one party, voting would still matter there. Republican voters in New Jersey or California, or Democratic ones in Texas or Georgia, would have a greater impact in the whole election. Additionally, voter turnout would likely increase, as they would have a reason to vote no matter how deeply partisan their state is. All geographic areas and demographics would be represented, and Americans might become a little less cynical about voting.
The electoral college is an important tradition that should be protected, and reformed, if needed. The congressional district system does this well. Voters would be enthused about voting no matter where they live, and candidates would have to care about every voter in every state. With this reform, America would be able to preserve an important part of our republic while allowing for every voice to be heard.