Donald Trump won the presidential election but lost the popular vote, marking the fifth time in U.S. history that the candidate who didn’t receive the most votes has ascended to the nation’s highest office. The outcome has prompted some to question whether the Electoral College—the body of officials that formally elects the nation’s president every four years—is good for democracy, and even compelled outgoing California Sen. Barbara Boxer to file legislation to abolish the 229-year-old system.
In a post-election interview with 60 Minutes, Trump himself reaffirmed his preference for the popular vote, though he tweeted on Tuesday that he would’ve campaigned much differently if that system were in place. He added that the Electoral College “is actually genius in that it bring in all states, including smaller ones, into play.”
We asked William Crotty, professor emeritus of political science at Northeastern and an expert on American elections, to explain why the Electoral College was created, what would happen if it were abolished, and whether the electors would dare to make history by overturning Trump’s victory.
First and foremost, why did the Founding Fathers initially create the Electoral College?
When the United States was created, no democracy existed in the world. Therefore there were no models, forms, or rules to follow. In attempting to provide a workable representative system, in line with the thinking of the day, a series of institutional compromises balancing a variety of interests was enacted. In part, the intent was to put checks on the exercise of power and to control corruption. The founders wanted a system that created a national government while still recognizing the importance of the states. At the same time, the founders were skeptical of pure democracy. The Electoral College was devised as a way to choose a president. The allotment of votes was dictated by the number of members from each state in Congress. Each state would choose its representative to meet, usually in the state capitol, and then select a candidate. The full Electoral College would meet in mid-December to evaluate the candidates and make its selection. The attempt was to balance democracy with a form of elite restraint. Knowledgeable community leaders would talk among themselves and make a choice.
It was an ingenious conception but one of the worst institutional compromises the Constitutional Convention made. It has never worked well. The fact is that it is a terrible system that has no place in an age where democracy is ascendant. It continues to exist from sheer inertia and the protection of entrenched power. It has little to do with democracy.
What would it take to abolish the Electoral College, and how might eliminating the system change the way future presidential candidates run their campaigns?
To change the Electoral College would require amending the Constitution. Article 5 of the Constitution describes the two options to do this. Only one has been used, which would require a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress and a positive vote from three-fourths of the states. It won’t happen. The last president to discuss change created a firestorm. Politicians look for advantage, not some conception of pure democracy. More states would lose out—the state role is the key—than would gain. Much of the Midwest, mountain states, and South would lose power. It will not happen. The other potential method of amending the Constitution would require a Constitutional Convention to be called by two-thirds of the state legislatures. That would be even more difficult and has therefore never been done.
If somehow the Electoral College were to be changed, candidates and parties would campaign where the people are. Most importantly, the majority vote in the election would decide the president and the agenda for the next four years. We would have to institute some form of national electoral commission to set the rules and provide a fair and accurate count of the vote. As far as I know, the United States is the only democratic country without such a commission.
More than 4 million people have signed a Change.org petition asking the Electoral College to pick Clinton as president instead of Trump, arguing that Clinton won the popular vote and should be elected commander-in-chief. Is there any reason to believe that electors will buck historical trends, go rogue, and overturn the result of the presidential election?
In principle, the electors can do whatever they want to if they are willing to suffer the consequences. If they vote against the wishes of their states’ majority, they could be fined and imprisoned for a short period. This level of discretion, with such minor penalties, is actually a problem and one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Electoral College. Most electors are petty officials, party loyalists, or candidate supporters. There is not a chance they would go rogue and countermand the Election Day outcome.