Evan Katz

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In my previous post, I used a technically possible but highly outlandish “perfect storm” scenario to underscore how the Electoral College is both an antiquated and convoluted method of electing a president. If you’ve been a long-time reader of this blog, then you likely already know my thoughts on the Electoral College. Four years and a contentious presidential election later, they haven’t changed.

We have a fundamentally flawed and undemocratic method of electing our president. The Electoral College gives certain voters a greater say in who wins just by virtue of where they live, violating the democratic spirit of “one person, one vote.” The winner-take-all nature of state contests effectively disenfranchises those voters who didn’t vote for their state’s winning candidate. Safe states get ignored in favor of a handful of battleground states that aren’t necessarily reflective of the rest of the country. And, most controversially, it can produce outcomes that run counter to the nation’s popular will, as it did most recently in 2000 and 2016.

But what are the alternatives? Are any of them feasible to implement over the next decade or two? Are they actually better than the Electoral College, or do they come with their own sets of issues? And can substantive changes be made without amending the Constitution to create a more sensible electoral system? This blog post will explore several alternatives to the Electoral College, their relative advantages and disadvantages, and their feasibility of implementation.

Group 1: Abandon the Electoral College, Amend the Constitution

The first group of alternatives would require the passage of a constitutional amendment. That’s only happened 27 times in American history—ten of which were the original Bill of Rights—and not since 1992. In other words, it’s extremely difficult to pull off and unlikely to happen anytime soon, especially without broad political will in this hyper-polarized political climate. Nonetheless, amending the Constitution introduces a theoretically endless number of possibilities for changing the way we elect the president.

Direct Popular Vote

The Electoral College emerged as a compromise for a bygone era. The Founders, who held deep concerns about the dangers of unbridled democracy, were wary of letting the people decide elections for the fledgling country’s chief executive. Small states also feared that large states like Virginia would dominate elections and impose their preferred president on the rest of the country. To resolve this, the power to elect the president was entrusted to a group of electors from each state. Electors were designed to serve as “enlightened gatekeepers,” generally reflecting the will of the people but intervening if the people elected a president that might be considered dangerous. To lessen the disparities between small and large states, each state received a number of electors corresponding to the number of members in its congressional delegation.

But much has changed since then. Political developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—such as the Civil War and New Deal—have strengthened the power of the federal government and blurred the distinctions between the states. Presidential power has grown considerably in the last hundred years, raising the stakes of elections. Technological developments have facilitated increased interconnectedness, shrinking the country and nationalizing American political behavior in the process. Reforms dating back to the Progressive Era have placed more political power in the hands of the people, who are significantly more educated than they were in the 1780s. And, save for faithless electors from time to time, electors simply rubber-stamp their states’ electoral results, eliminating any need for them in the first place. Simply put, many of the justifications and conditions for the creation of the Electoral College no longer hold. A more engaged, connected, and informed populace deserves the right to directly determine who wields the immense authority vested in the nation’s chief executive.

It’s self-evident how a direct popular vote is more democratic than the Electoral College. Every person’s vote counts equally, and votes for losing candidates in each state still count toward the national total. Battleground states no longer occupy center stage, giving seldom visited safe states some time in the limelight. Perhaps most importantly, elections go to the candidate who receives the most votes nationally, not the most electoral votes, avoiding highly contentious splits.

Several younger federal presidential republics have implemented direct popular votes for their chief executives. Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico are examples of large federations with presidential systems that directly elect their presidents. Brazil forces a runoff if no candidate wins a simple majority, while Argentina requires a candidate to win at least 45 percent of the popular vote—or at least 40 percent with a ten-plus point margin of victory over the nearest competitor—to avoid ballotage. Mexico elects its president in a single round with simple first-past-the-post rules. France, a unitary semi-presidential republic, also uses a direct popular vote with a majority requirement. All of these countries are proof that such a system can work.

Critics of a direct popular vote say that, without the Electoral College, small states and rural voters would get ignored since candidates would just campaign in big cities and populous areas. I find this hard to believe. Under the current system, candidates hardly pay any mind to small states anyways because they’re rarely competitive. Additionally, many campaigns for governor and the Senate already take the time to visit rural areas in their states to shore up support; there’s no reason why presidential campaigns would be any different. With a direct popular vote, rural voters’ votes would still count toward a national total, and those voters in rural states who didn’t vote for the majority party would no longer be disenfranchised, incentivizing candidates to reach out to them.

Many of these critics can be categorized as one or more of the following:

  1. Institutional conservatives who are wary of major changes to the system,
  2. Partisans who don’t want to aid the other side’s electoral prospects,
  3. Strict constitutionalists who treat the Founders’ words as sacrosanct,
  4. Small-r republicans who fear the majoritarianism inherent in direct elections, and/or
  5. Rural voters who enjoy disproportionate voting power.

It’s important to understand the world views that motivate the critics in each of these categories, because they’re definitely not neutral. Institutional conservatives aren’t going to get on board with any sort of major change because they’re naturally predisposed to the status quo. Partisans will always do what’s best for their party; Republicans may have benefited from the Electoral College in 2000 and 2016, but Democrats also benefited in 2008 and 2012, so neither side has an incentive to change when it’s in power. Strict constitutionalists—particularly originalists and textualists—refuse to entertain the thought that eighteenth century thinkers might not have designed the system with today’s society in mind. Small-r republicans smugly proclaim that “the United States is a constitutional republic, not a democracy” as a non sequitur in these debates, as if that invalidates any justification for a direct popular vote. And rural voters naturally don’t want to cede voting power to all the people living in urban areas who don’t share their views or interests.

To be sure, a direct popular vote system still has its flaws. Elections would appear much closer, and there might be more grounds for protracted national recounts in the event that the margin of victory is under a certain vote threshold. With the Electoral College, at least it almost always produces a clear winner, making close races like 1960 and 1976 seem decisive and giving the winning candidate a mandate to govern. However, a direct popular vote in 2016 would have produced a clear winner in Hillary Clinton.

There are also inherent problems with first-past-the-post voting rules. Because a direct popular vote gives prominent independents a greater chance of victory, there could be situations where several viable candidates compete, producing a popular vote winner with only a small plurality of the vote. While giving voters more options to choose from is almost always a good thing, a candidate could theoretically be elected with less than 30 percent of the vote. Clearly that president-elect would lack a mandate to govern, as a large majority of the country would have preferred someone else. Indeed, Felipe Calderón won the 2006 Mexican presidential election with less than 36 percent of the vote, and his victory was shrouded in controversy.

Like in Brazil and Argentina, and in several states across the country, runoff elections between the two candidates who receive the most votes in the first round could resolve situations where no candidate passes a required threshold. However, having another national election only a few weeks later would be more expensive and would likely face lower turnout. Furthermore, the winning candidate would have less time to form a cabinet and begin the transition from the previous administration.

The ideal fix to that problem would be ranked choice voting, where voters ordinally rank their candidate preferences and have their votes reallocated to their next choice if their initial preference is eliminated. This would instantly resolve any runoffs if no candidate wins a majority, preventing successive rounds of voting. It would also ensure that the winning candidate at least has broad acceptance among voters who ranked the winner second or third on their ballots.

Unfortunately, despite broad public support, it’s unlikely the United States will use a direct popular vote to elect the president anytime soon. There isn’t enough bipartisan political will to get an amendment passed. And even if one made it through Congress, it’s difficult to imagine 38 states would ratify it. Small states in particular wouldn’t agree to voluntarily dilute their voting power. The closest the country ever came to such an amendment was during the 91st Congress, when the House of Representatives passed the Bayh-Celler Amendment that would’ve eliminated the Electoral College in favor of a direct popular vote with a 40 percent threshold, but that ultimately died in the Senate.

Parliamentary System

Alternatively, if we’re amending the Constitution, we could just throw out the whole presidential system altogether and replace it with a parliamentary system akin to the United Kingdom. Of course, that’ll never happen, so don’t expect to see Prime Minister Nancy Pelosi anytime soon, but that’s the fun of hypotheticals.

A parliamentary system would be more efficient and effective at governing because the legislature and executive are fused together. In other words, the government and parliament are pretty much always aligned. This is in contrast to a presidential system, which frequently features divided mandates when one party controls the presidency and the other controls Congress, leading to gridlock. Parliamentary systems are also less prone to personalistic rule and authoritarianism because leaders can be removed on a whim.

However, parliamentary systems tend to be more unstable. Coalitions can break down or fail to form, leaving countries without governments for significant periods of time (e.g. Belgium). They also can suffer from majoritarianism; a ruling coalition can largely pass whatever it wants unchecked. Presidential systems feature numerous checks and balances that curb majoritarian impulses, even if they promote gridlock.

Four years ago, Sam and I had a series of blog posts arguing the merits of both presidentialism and parliamentarianism, so if you want to go back and read them, click on these in order.

Group 2: Keep the Electoral College, Change the Allocation Method

The second group of alternatives works within the existing system. Since a constitutional amendment would be virtually impossible, the more feasible way to change how we elect the president is to alter how each state allocates its electoral votes. Because the individual states have the authority to determine their own allocation methods, all of these proposals would require broad buy-in from state governments to successfully implement. However, policy transfers between states frequently happen, so there could be a snowball effect that leads to widespread adoption of one of these methods over time. Unlike having to wait for the ratification of a constitutional amendment, we could see these systems in action on a smaller scale before they’d be put into place nationwide.

National Popular Vote (NPV)

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPV) is an agreement among several states to allocate their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote for president. As of July 2020, sixteen states and D.C.—comprising 196 electoral votes—have agreed to it. NPV would only take effect once a sufficient number of states to make up 270 electoral votes agrees to the compact. NPV is probably the likeliest and least infeasible way to effectively elect the president via direct popular vote because it sidesteps the amendment process and doesn’t require all states to get on board.

However, there are quite a few obstacles to the NPV. Most of the states that have signed on to the compact are blue states. Getting to the 270–electoral vote threshold to effectively control presidential elections would require several swing and red states to get on board. Since Republicans currently benefit from the electoral map, it’s unlikely any red states would have incentive to change the system. Swing states enjoy the bulk of campaign activity, so it’s doubtful they’d want to cede that spotlight or real voting power. Nonetheless, there’s some momentum for NPV, as several states have signed on over the last four years.

Congressional Districts

Instead of using the national popular vote, states could allocate their electoral votes by congressional district. Maine and Nebraska currently use this system; Barack Obama won Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district in 2008, and Donald Trump won Maine’s 2nd congressional district in 2016. Several other states—including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, and New Hampshire—have discussed doing the same.

There are two different forms this method can take. In one, the two remaining at-large electoral votes in each state would go to the statewide winner. If this system existed in 2016 nationwide, Trump would have beaten Clinton, 290–248, as seen below. In the other method, each state’s remaining electoral votes would go to whomever won the majority of congressional districts. Using this system, Trump would’ve beaten Clinton, 297–241, as Trump won a majority of districts in Virginia, Minnesota, and Nevada in addition to splitting Maine and New Hampshire.

2016_House_Districts_by_Presidential_Party_Winner
How each congressional district voted for president in 2016. Clinton won 20 states, DC, and 205 congressional districts, while Trump won 30 states and 230 congressional districts, giving him a 290–248 Electoral College victory under this method (DailyKos).

On one hand, this would lead to fewer wasted votes and would more accurately reflect the partisan breakdown of each state. For example, Illinois would’ve given 7 of its 20 electoral votes (35 percent) to Trump, and Texas would’ve given 14 of its 38 electoral votes (36.8 percent) to Clinton. Those numbers are more in line with the minority party’s share of the vote in both states. It also would mean that, most of the time, the majority in the House would be aligned with the president as fewer people engage in split-ticket voting—though the Senate is a different story.

On the other hand, many of these election results would be distorted because of the way House districts are drawn. The House probably has a slight built-in Republican bias. Some of this is inevitable; natural sorting means key Democratic constituencies aren’t well distributed geographically because they tend to pack into urban clusters. This is inefficient for representation purposes because it means Democrats generally win urban districts by large margins—leading to many superfluous votes—but can’t compete as effectively in more rural districts that favor Republicans. Yet some of it is the result of gerrymandering. Partisan control over redistricting in many states allows the majority party in state government to draw districts that inherently favor their candidates. Gerrymandering greatly benefited Republicans during the previous round of redistricting, as they controlled a majority of state legislatures after the 2010 census and were able to draw districts to their advantage.

In addition to the fact that this system would’ve still picked someone other than the popular vote winner in both 2000 and 2016, a prime example of why congressional district allocation wouldn’t work nationwide is the 2012 election. Barack Obama won a majority of the popular vote and the Electoral College en route to reelection, even though Mitt Romney won a majority of House districts and Republicans kept control of the House. Under the existing system, Obama cruised to a relatively uncontroversial victory. However, if the congressional district allocation method had been used nationwide, Romney would’ve won, 274–264, creating yet another electoral split.

Proportional Popular Vote

Since one of the strongest critiques of the Electoral College is its winner-take-all nature, dividing electoral votes proportionally in a manner similar to many presidential primary contests would help to resolve that issue. It also would give major third-party and independent candidates a legitimate chance to win electoral votes without having to win states outright. Presently, those candidates can only win electoral votes if they have concentrated geographic support, like the Dixiecrats did in the mid-twentieth century.

One issue with this method is that, like with a direct popular vote, there are many occasions where the winning candidate would fail to win a majority of the popular vote. By extension, it would be quite common for the leading candidate to fall short of the 270–electoral vote threshold necessary to win. This means presidential elections would often be decided in the House via contingent elections. Take 1992, which featured Ross Perot as a prominent independent candidate. Perot’s 18.9 percent of the vote would have given him enough electoral votes to deny either Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush 270 electoral votes, forcing the House to decide the election (likely in Clinton’s favor). The same would have happened in 1996, 2000, and 2016.

One way to prevent frequent contingent elections would be to award each statewide winner two electoral votes—like in the congressional district method—and divide the rest proportionally. This benefits the major party candidates at the expense of minor candidates, but also is more likely to produce a winner.

Additionally, “proportionality” is a tricky concept with discrete electoral votes. If Candidate A earned a share of a state’s popular vote equivalent to 3.5 electoral votes, while Candidate B earned 2.5, whose total gets rounded up and whose gets rounded down? Theoretically, there’s nothing preventing the use of fractional electoral votes (unless I’ve missed a Supreme Court ruling or constitutional provision), but that introduces a whole new set of issues that I don’t think are worth exploring here.

There are several different apportionment methods used around the world, such as Hamilton (largest remainder), D’Hondt/Jefferson (highest averages), Webster/Sainte-Laguë (highest quotient), and Huntington–Hill (geometric mean). Each method addresses the proportionality issue in a different way; for example, D’Hondt benefits major candidates while Huntington–Hill slightly favors minor candidates. I plan to talk about these in more depth in a future blog post, so don’t worry too much about the differences. The House notably uses the Huntington–Hill method to apportion seats to the 50 states.

2016 Proportional Electoral College.jpg
The 2016 electoral map if states gave their popular vote winners two electoral votes and allocated their remaining electoral votes proportionally according to the Huntington–Hill method. Using this method, Trump would still have won a majority of electoral votes, albeit barely.

There’s another problem that would forestall the adoption of proportional allocation: a prisoner’s dilemma of sorts involving red and blue states. The party in power in one state government has no incentive to implement a system that only helps the opposite party, even if the governments of both red and blue states adopting it produces a benefit for all. For example, California would be consigning upwards of 20 electoral votes to Republicans—equivalent to handing over the whole state of Pennsylvania in each presidential election. That would ironically make California one of the largest sources of electoral votes for Republicans in presidential elections, as seen in the map above. Without a guarantee of reciprocity from similarly sized states, neither side would adopt proportional allocation.

Conclusion

It’s clear the Electoral College needs to go. The $330 million question is finding the most feasible way to replace it with a less flawed alternative. A direct popular vote using ranked choice voting is probably the best replacement option, but the odds of that happening in the foreseeable future are infinitesimal. The path of least resistance lies in convincing individual states to alter their allocation methods, but there’s little incentive for states to agree to changes. NPV offers some promise, but unless swing and red states join the compact, it won’t go anywhere anytime soon. Until then, we’re stuck with what we’ve got.