The Electoral College vs. The Alternative Vote


America’s election system: the very embodiment of a fair, simple, and democratic election. One vote per person, the candidate with the most votes wins.  Simple, fair, and accurate.  Right? Unfortunately, this is not entirely the case.  Among the many complications is the Electoral College system.  It’s not that the electoral college is entirely bad, but many believe that its time has passed.

How the US’s election works now is all the votes in a state get tallied and the winning candidate takes all of that state’s electors.  This system dates back to the days when it was next to impossible to communicate across the entire country effectively, and so one would elect delegates who would then gather for a meeting and discussion, and then vote for the president.  However, with radio, television, and the internet, it has become much easier for everyone to be informed, and to vote for the candidates directly.

These days, most states group all the votes in a state together and give them, winner take all, to one candidate.  Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions, and allocating their electors by who wins in each congressional district.  This system has some disadvantages.  The most controversial effect this system has is that the small states have slightly more votes proportional to their population.  This is because the amount of electors you have is the amount of total representatives in Congress your state has, including Senate members.  This system means that California has almost four times as many voters per delegate as Wyoming. Depending who you ask, this favoring of smaller states is either a blessing or a curse.  Many think that it doesn’t even have an effect, pointing to the fact that politicians still rarely campaign in the small states.  One of the most obvious disadvantages to the electoral college is that the winner of the most delegates is not always the winner of the popular vote.  This has happened four times already, most recently in 2000, where Bush won despite Gore having half a million more total votes. Indeed, it is theoretically possible to win the election with about 22% of the vote, by winning 50%+1 votes in the smallest states, and losing the rest entirely.  The other problem with the electoral collage is that non-swing states often get ignored completely,their only use being to gather donations from.  Clearly, these are some pretty major issues.

So how could it change?  Well, one way would be to have a constitutional amendment changing the voting system.  However, those are hard to pass, and so advocates of abolishing the electoral collage found a different way.  As states can choose how they distribute their votes, they introduced the National Popular Vote bill.  Once enough states pass it so that their total votes would add up to 270 electorates, the amount needed to win the presidency, all the states who passed it will allocate their electors to the popular vote, meaning that who won the other states would be irrelevant.  This bill has already passed 9 states, totaling 49% of the 270 delegates it needs.

The  popular vote is not a perfect solution either.  For starters, many think that it would mean politicians disproportionately favor cities and metro areas over the interests of more rural areas.  Other problems are that it would bring the frenzied media advertising in the swing states to a national scale, and make local attention less likely.  Some say that it would make it more possible for a radical who appeals strongly to one segment of the population to get elected, instead of politicians needing to reach across the country.  Others fear the possibility of a close vote that needs to be recounted, and the chaos that followed the 2000 election in Florida taking place on a national scale.  Others worry about the effect third party candidates would have, as the electoral college forces the political situation into a two party system.  This contributes greatly to political stability of the country, but does also stifle many political views.  Clearly, the Electoral Collage was not just put into place for logistical reasons, but also for political sensibility.

At the base of it, this is a discussion about what democracy should be. Questions like that have no simple answer.  The deeper you go to find answers, the more complicated the questions become.  Indeed, the debate over electoral college is just one aspect.  In the news today you see the fight over voter ID laws, which again boils down to what voting in a democracy should look like.  One of the more interesting related questions is about different voting systems. Should voters rank the candidates instead of just picking one? Or some entirely different system, like range voting?  Personally, I really like the alternative vote system, but I encourage you to establish your own preference.  Because that’s what democracy is all about.