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Fall 2004 • Volume 10, Issue 4

Is it time to reform the Electoral College?

With a nation facing a presidential election, the Bradley Hilltopics staff posed this question to our political science professors.

Dr. William HallDr. Emily GillDr. Craig Curtis


Dr. William Hall
professor of political science

Dr. HallWhether it is time to try to amend the Constitution in terms of the Electoral College depends on what you expect out of the Electoral College. I should note that it is not unheard of for my American government students to refer to the “Electrical College.”

If the Electoral College is to reflect the national popular vote totals, then it is time for reform. Under the present system, all electoral votes of each state except Maine and Nebraska are cast for the candidate winning a majority of the state’s popular vote. The two exceptions award votes on a congressional district basis with the overall state popular vote winner receiving the two bonus electoral votes given each state for representation in the U.S. Senate. Ironically, since these states adopted this format, neither has ever divided its electoral votes.

If the Electoral College is to reflect the votes cast in the individual states on a proportional basis, then it is time to try to amend the Constitution. If you want to award electoral votes on the basis of vote percentages in each state, then the present system receives failing marks. In other words, if Illinois gives John Kerry 60 percent of the popular votes and George Bush 40 percent, under the present rules, Kerry would get all 21 electoral votes and Bush would get none. If the rules were changed to award electoral votes on the basis of popular vote totals, then Kerry would get 13 electoral votes, and Bush would get eight.

While other proposals for altering the electoral vote process exist, these two attract the most support. It is unclear whether sufficient congressional and popular support exists for either of these proposals or any other constitutional alteration of the Electoral College. The process for amending the Constitution usually begins in Congress. Amendments to the Constitution that originate in Congress require the approval of two-thirds of both houses of Congress. If a proposed amendment receives the necessary votes in both houses, that amendment is then sent to the states for ratification. Three-fourths of the states (38) must vote to ratify an amendment before it is added to the Constitution.

However, another avenue for proposing amendments has yet to be used. If two-thirds of the state legislatures petition Congress to call a constitutional convention for the purpose of proposing amendments, an amendment affecting the Electoral College could be initiated in this way. If such a convention were convened and approved an amendment to the Constitution, it would still have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. The states have the absolute last word on

I do not believe reform of the Electoral College is likely at this time. A quadrennial target of political reformers, it seems to escape each reform attempt unscathed. Reform of the Electoral College is not an issue that stirs the hearts and minds of Americans.

One of the reasons reform seems unlikely is that currently 24 states have five or fewer electoral votes (out of 538). I believe many (or most) of these smaller states would be reluctant to make changes which might further dilute their already limited power in the selection of a president.

For better or worse, the Electoral College generally works as the Founders designed it to work. In fact, it is more reflective of the popular vote in each of the states than the Founders anticipated. The Electoral College was designed to make a national decision on a state-by-state basis. It continues to do that.

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Dr. Emily Gill
professor of political science

Dr. GillAs is well known, the framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted to insulate at least some elections from what they feared would be the shifting winds of popular passions. Not only did they stipulate that the President be selected by the votes of electors in each state, rather than by popular vote, but they also required that U.S. Senators be selected by state legislatures, rather than by popular vote, an arrangement later changed by constitutional amendment. Groundswells for change have foundered on the fact that advocacy is often split among several proposed alternatives. As a result, I do not believe it is politically feasible to expect enough support for one proposed alternative to ensure its passage and ratification as a constitutional amendment. I do, however, think there is one advantage to the current arrangement that is often overlooked.

Generally, all of the electoral votes of a state go to whichever candidate wins the state’s popular vote, even when the latter margin is narrow, so candidates tend to focus their campaigns in heavily populated states that usually contain major urban areas. They get more bang for their buck, so to speak, by spending several days in California, for example, because of California’s many electoral votes, rather than traveling around many smaller states whose votes together might total the same as California’s. This arrangement potentially means that candidates may focus on urban voters, often racial minorities and the less well off, who don’t count as much in races for state legislatures or the U.S. Congress. If we moved to popular election of the President, there would not be the same incentive as now for candidates to focus on states containing large numbers of urban voters, and these areas might get even less attention than they do presently.

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Dr. Craig Curtis
associate professor of political science

Dr. CurtisIt is not time to reform the Electoral College. While the aftermath of the 2000 election produced some negative outcomes, these effects are not really because George W. Bush did not win the popular vote. Reforming the system would be too traumatic for the nation.

The current system works well, if we avoid having an election going to the House of Representatives, an outcome that is not very likely in the absence of a third party with sufficient strength to garner electoral college votes. Results in the Electoral College almost always follow the popular vote. Voters in small states and less populated areas of large states get more attention from the major party candidates than they would if we employed a nationwide popular vote. If we moved to a system wherein the ticket that won the popular vote was the winner, candidates would simply concentrate their efforts on the more populous areas.

In the aftermath of the 2000 election, the nation was bitterly divided on the issue of the legitimacy of the Bush Presidency. Subsequent policy decisions made by the Bush Administration, especially the decision to invade Iraq, have made this divide even more apparent. In my opinion, the polarization of the electorate into two bitterly opposed camps is the result of a change in the style of politics that started during the Reagan era. Don’t blame the Electoral College; blame Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and Trent Lott. Had Bush won the popular vote as well as the vote in the Electoral College, this polarization would still be with us, and large numbers of voters in 2004 would still be either voting for Bush, or against him. Trying to change the system in today’s political environment would lead to far too much worry about whether the new system favors Democrats or Republicans, and far too little discussion about whether the proposed system protects the values of democratic theory. Now is not the time to consider such a major reform.

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