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  • Writer's pictureNishta Nandakumar

The Electoral College: What Is It and Why Is It a Problem?

With the 2020 presidential election just around the corner, it's important to know how the voting process works in America, especially the part of it that involves the Electoral College. The Electoral College is the system that is used to determine who wins the presidency, and it has been in use since the 1787 Constitutional Convention. In 1787, the Founding Fathers created the Electoral College because they didn't want the popular vote nor Congress to determine who took office next, a precaution to ensure that the young country would not be divided under different political parties. However, even from the beginning of its implementation, the Electoral College posed quite a few problems, the first of which emerged during the election of 1800. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the number of electoral votes they received, and Congress had to break the tie, determining Jefferson as the third President.

The use of the Electoral College makes sure that the popular vote doesn't directly determine the outcome of the presidential election. John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), George W. Bush (2000), and Donald Trump (2016) all lost the popular vote and won the presidency. The Electoral College is one of the main reasons both candidates target battleground/swing states during their rallies - they need those electoral votes to win. With a total of 538 electoral votes, a candidate has to get 270 electoral votes to win the presidency, and some swing states (states where the outcome remains highly uncertain), such as Florida and Pennsylvania, have a significant number of votes, 29 and 20 respectively. Albeit an unlikely scenario, in the case of an overall tie, the vote would go to the House of Representatives, with each state voting unanimously for one candidate. More or less, our modern Electoral College has remained unchanged since the Constitutional Convention.

Even if the Electoral College may seem like a well thought out system, it is not without its issues. For example, according to the Constitution, electors are only strongly encouraged to vote in line with their state’s views; theoretically, if an elector from New York (which is usually a blue state by popular vote) decides to vote red, no one can stop him or her. However, the courts have upheld state laws that punish electors who flout a state’s popular vote.

Though the machinations of the Electoral College have not altered the course of an election as of yet, the numbers of electors voting for a different candidate than what their state wants is increasing, with a record of seven electors doing this in the 2016 election. As mentioned above, most states have been taking precautions against this problem after the past election, but not all states have set consequences for the rogue electors. To put this problem into context, we have had 45 presidents in our history, and a ninth of them, including our current president, have only taken office due to the Electoral College, not the popular vote. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton beat President Trump by around 2.9 million votes in the popular vote, the widest margin of any losing presidential candidate. However, although many voters aligned with Clinton’s ideals over President Trump’s, she still lost.

Moreover, the Electoral College may discourage people from voting, because they believe that their vote won't matter - a valid concern of many, when the popular vote doesn't determine the outcome of the presidential election. Therefore, I personally believe that the Electoral College should be reformed or replaced altogether. I think that now, more than ever, it is imperative that America looks to a different process for electing our presidents. With all that has transpired not only in the last eight months, but also the last four years, I believe that the government should take steps in making sure that all citizens are represented in presidential elections. The only way to even begin to achieve this is to reform our current electoral system.


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