On Friday, Al Gore called for the end of the electoral college system, arguing that the presidency should be decided based upon the popular vote.
It’s possible – though unlikely – that come November’s election, one presidential candidate could win the popular vote but that the other could win the presidency of the United States. This rarity would be made possible by the bizarre quirk of American politics that we like to call the electoral college.
As November approaches, the most recent polling shows a tightening race between the presidential candidates. The newest Washington Post-ABC poll shows Romney and Obama nearly tied, with Romney only up by a point, with Obama leading by same slim margin in the latest CBS/New York Times survey. But are Obama and Romney really as neck in neck as they look?
Readers take note: polls like this don’t mean as much as you’d think. Certainly, they serve as broad indicators of public opinion on hot button issues to give candidates political guidance, but at the end of the day it’s the electoral votes that will determine our next Mr. President. Many have argued that the Electoral College setup currently favors the Obama camp, regardless of how close the popular vote looks on paper. The chance that there will be a difference in the popular and electoral vote, however, is slight.
It’s the Electoral College, Stupid
The math that will really determine the election’s real winner is hidden from these polls’ sight: electoral votes, not the popular vote, will select our next president. Remember your 8th grade civics class? Here is a snapshot of how it works, by the numbers:
- The electoral college process assigns each state a number of electors based on its number of House Representatives and Senators. The electors, chosen by each state’s voters, are in turn responsible for voting for the candidates their citizens prefer.
- There are now 538 electors in the Electoral College, and a 270 vote majority must be obtained for a President to be elected.
- Four times in American history, this has led to the election of a president who did not receive the plurality of the popular vote: John Quincy Adams Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison and – perhaps most memorably to our readers – George W. Bush. In theory, this year could be a fifth.
No matter your politics, does this inspire your confidence in our political system?
Why Romney’s Odds are So Slim
Indeed, Romney’s current odds shape up the way they do precisely because of the way our electoral college system is structured: much worse than the public opinion polls are showing. Our election tracker calculates Romney’s odds of winning, based on the accuracy of historical polls in predicting election outcomes, to find that Romney only has a 20% chance of beating Obama this year. Here’s how it works:
- Obama has 201 safe electoral votes. Romney has only 181. Only 12 states (156 electoral votes) could go to either candidate.
- Therefore, Romney needs at least 89 of those 156 electoral votes to win (57%).
- Given current polling in those states & historical polling accuracy, Romney’s statistical chance of getting those 89 votes is only 20%.
Expert Opinions: Should the electoral college system be abolished?
It’s a question as old as time – or at least as old as early American democracy. Should we abolish the electoral college? There are a variety of organizations within the U.S. who are currently campaigning for a system where the presidency would be determined purely by the popular vote, working to introduce bills that would change the process.
But clearly the Founding Fathers didn’t just make a mistake – at least, we certainly we hope they didn’t. Actually, the system was a last-minute innovation at the Constitutional Convention, and was given very little attention, since everyone assumed George Washington would be the first president. Still, they must have had something in mind for all of this, whether it’s still relevant today or not. We turn to some additional experts for their views on whether there’s still a place for the electoral college today, as well as what it should look like:
- Jessica Peck, Esq., Executive Director of Colorado’s Open Government Institute, provides a Coloradan’s perspective on how the electoral college system works for smaller states and why it should be kept intact:
“Without the electoral college, there is simply no viable argument to be made that presidential contenders would otherwise bother coming to Colorado. In just the last month, the Obama machine has rolled into Denver no less than four times, bringing a rock star roster along that has featured Hollywood celebrities and Beltway heroes. Similarly, Romney has also made multiple stops to Colorado this summer. But it’s not just about getting attention for little states. Also, and more critically, the electoral college plays a key role in continuing the founders’ desires to integrate ideological factions into a more cohesive two-party-system. It’s too easy to forget that our founders intentionally designed our system believing that gridlock—while frustrating and damaging too often—was far better than a system that neglected to bring fringe factions into the fold, or alternatively, failed to provide a system of checks and balances not only on individual branches of governments but also on the power of large states to dominate smaller ones.”
- Professor Gerald Pomper, Political Science Professor at the Rutgers University Eagleton Institute of Politics, debunks myths around the electoral college system and argues for a popular vote model:
“I’m a realist, and I don’t think the electoral college system is going to change. It would require a constitutional amendment that would be extremely hard to pass, and we don’t truly know the effects that would come of abolishing the current system. The only reform proposal with any democratic legitimacy is a model where the popular vote would directly determine the presidency, in which every American’s vote has exactly the same weight. Though obviously defensible, this reform would be very hard to pass and hypothetically could result in close races in which weeks had to be spent recounting votes all over the country. It would also likely result in TV becoming the only means of campaigning, since a vote in Wyoming would equal a vote in California, and so forth. The variety of other reform proposals out there would result in a similarly messy set of recounting, redistricting, and enforcement problems. In contrast, some mistakenly believe that the current system most benefits big states, but in reality it works to help smaller states by giving them more electoral votes than their proportion of the U.S. population entitles them to. As it happens in reality, the most campaign attention goes to the close states like Colorado and Virginia when it comes to ads run and candidate visits; the candidates spend practically no time in California, New York, and Texas. If we change at all, we should just accept the democratic principle of one-person-one-vote and elect by direct, national popular vote.”
- Tara Ross, author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College debunks the notion that the Electoral College is undemocratic:
”The Electoral College is critical to the success of our republican democracy, and it should be kept. The system is often accused of being undemocratic, but these allegations demonstrate a fundamental misconception of how the system operates. The system is democratic, but it combines these democratic elements with federalist ones. Think of it this way: Each and every presidential election year, this nation conducts 51 purely democratic elections—one in each state and one in D.C. We hold these state-level elections so we can determine the identity of the individuals (electors) who will represent each state in a later, second election among the states. The first election is democratic: each election is one among only the individuals of that state. The second election is federalist: it is an election among the states themselves, as represented by their electors. Because of the way our system is structured, victory can be achieved only by those candidates who reach out to a variety of voters nationwide. Without such broad-based support, candidates can’t win a majority of states’ electors. A direct popular election would not have the same incentives to reach out to a variety of Americans. Instead, the candidate with the most individual votes—even if they are obtained exclusively in one region or in a handful of urban areas—would be the winner. Our great, diverse country is well-served by the unique combination of democracy and federalism in its presidential election system.”
- Professor James Thurber, Director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, details how he would reform the electoral system if he could:
“If I were the architect of the electoral system in the United States, I’d abolish it. But I know that won’t happen – there have been hundreds of proposals to abolish or reform the colleges and none of them have gone anywhere. Really, the most practical way change the system now would be to model it similarly to how Nebraska and Maine have done by moving to proportional representation in the electoral college system. These states are the two exceptions to the statewide winner-takes-all approach. Here, the electors would vote based on who wins by Congressional District, rather than the entire state’s popular vote, then these votes would be tallied to determine the winner. At this point, though, it would be practically impossible to get the House and Senate to ratify such a change. The only thing that might move the needle on this would be if we were to see another election where our next President doesn’t receive the popular vote.”
Susan Lyon is a senior analyst with NerdWallet Investing, a financial literacy group that helps investors select better mutual funds for their 401(k) plans, find better online brokers options, and make smarter financial choices.