HILLIARD: The Electoral College is our quadrennial dilemma — does it need to be reformed?

Published 11:08 am Friday, December 4, 2020

Every four years following a Presidential election, there are calls to eliminate the Electoral College, replacing it with the popular vote determination. Behind this sentiment are citizens’ dismay that a candidate can win the popular vote yet fail to secure the required electoral votes (i.e. the 2000 and 2016 election). Critics claim that the electoral college is fundamentally flawed and undemocratic in that it gives certain voters a greater say in the election than it does others.

Wholesale reform of the electoral college requires amending the U.S. Constitution. More specific changes, such as requiring electors to represent the popular vote, or changing the geographical representation of electors can be changed by states.

Popular opinion is divided over wanting continue or reform the Electoral College. According to a study by the Pew Research Center (“Fact Tank by the Numbers”, March 2020) roughly 60 percent of Americans favor moving to a popular vote. Among Democrats, 80 percent favor elimination, while only 32 percent of Republicans favor elimination. Demographics (i.e. gender, age, educational level) do not appear to influence voters’ positions on reform.

Electoral College reforms

Electoral College reforms rest on three general premises. First, “winner take all” elections can underrepresent large portions of the population. Second, minority political parties, as well as nonpartisan movements, are disadvantaged. Third, today’s voter is more educated and enlightened than the Framers believed. The reform schemes either use the popular vote as the basis for election victory or allocate electoral votes within a state by vote proportion or across the state’s Congressional districts.

Popular vote in the state

The most often considered reform is to move to a popular vote. Here, every vote counts toward establishing the winner by whomever receives the most votes (known as plurality) in the state. This may be less than 50 percent if third party candidates run. With a popular vote, candidates can focus on public issues and not “battleground” states. Critics of the popular vote method point to a number of issues. Also, the popular vote method encourages candidates to favor large states and cities, underrepresenting rural areas.

To lessen the problems with the popular vote method, some favor ranked-choice voting. Here, the voter achieves greater recognition of their preferences. Instead of casting only one vote for the President, the voter rank orders their candidate preferences. If their first choice is eliminated, their vote is automatically reallocated to their next choice and so on. This ensures that the winner has broad acceptance among those who ranked the winner second or third.

Keep the Electoral College, change the Allocation Rule

Given the difficulty in amending the U.S. Constitution, some reforms seek changes that can be enacted at the state level. Here, states can legally change the way their electoral votes are allocated. Instead of “winner take all” states could follow a proportional allocation whereby the total number of the state’s electors reflect the percentage distribution of the Presidential vote in that state. A candidate who received say 75 percent of the vote in the state would receive 75 percent of the electoral votes and so on. This enhances the representation of voters who did not vote for the top percentage achieving candidate.

National popular vote

This reform sidesteps the need for a Constitutional amendment. With this method states commit to awarding all their electoral votes to the winner of the election’s popular vote. Currently, states who support this change have entered into the “National Vote Interstate Compact.” To date, these states hold 196 electoral votes. To take effect 270 electoral votes from states would be needed to effect this reform. States who benefit from the current electoral college method, as well as “battleground” states are likely to oppose the national popular vote idea.

Congressional district allocation

With this method, states allocate their electoral votes to Congressional districts. Maine and Nebraska currently use this system. A variation of this reserves some of the state’s electoral votes as at-large based upon the state-wide winner. In another variation, the at-large vote goes to whoever won the majority of Congressional districts. These systems have drawbacks, especially when Congressional districts suffer from gerrymandering. This can underrepresent Democratic votes who tend to be more dispersed geographically than Republicans.

Overall, reforms that require amending the U.S. Constitution face a very difficult path to success. The framers preferred reform be accomplished outside of Constitutional amendment. They looked to states as a source for experimentation and reform given their proximity to citizens. All reforms bestow advantage for some and disadvantage for others, often by partisanship. Importantly, all reforms are accompanied by unintended consequences that may lead to new obstacles to better representation. Don’t expect large scale change in the near future as public sentiment for change is indeed quadrennial.

Dr. Jan William Hillard is data editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune and retired ‘Faculty Emeritus’ of Northern Kentucky University.