Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

The Electoral College—Does it Matter?

by Gary L. Gregg, director of the MCCONNELL CENTER

This is the fifth article in a series about the Electoral College that I think a lot of Americans want to know the answers to. In the previous four, I laid out the origins, history, evolution and current functioning of the institution. Here I take up the question, “Does it really matter?”

Opponents decry the Electoral College system as “undemocratic” and “archaic.” Few of its most vociferous opponents argue that it doesn’t matter—that’s why they want to change it. They know it does have a profound real-world impact on our politics. They just don’t like the impact it is having. Supporters of the Electoral College know it is important and so take what has become a very unpopular opinion in mainstream media and in the academy and defend it.

But, for the average voter, I think the assumption is that the Electoral College doesn’t really matter much anyway, seems overly complicated, and seems undemocratic. They assume the system can be changed with just a tweak and life will otherwise go on pretty much as it has. Some recent polls found a national popular vote to be more popular than continuing on with the Electoral College.

Vocal opponents and supporters know the importance of the Electoral College, but for everyone else here are three reasons why the Electoral College matters as much today as it ever has in American history.

First, though we cannot say definitively whether the existence of the Electoral College has changed who our presidents have been, we can assume with pretty strong evidence that it has. We all know George W. Bush received fewer popular votes across the nation than did Al Gore in 2000. We also know that Donald Trump received fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016. It’s easy to assume America had these presidents rather than their alternatives because we use the constitutional math of the Electoral College to elect presidents rather than a simple popular vote.

If you don’t think it mattered that George W. Bush instead of Al Gore was president when the towers fell on 9/11 or Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton has been president during the last few years, you must not have been paying much attention at all! Love ‘em or hate ‘em, who is elected president profoundly matters in America.

Second, the “rules of the game” created by the Electoral College structure our campaigns so that Clinton and Trump spent a vital portion of their time in competitive swing states rather than in dense urban population centers. If the rules of the game were different, the election results would likely have been different, but one can’t say definitively how it would have broken under different electoral incentives.

What we can say is that the Electoral College math helps give us competitive campaigns, helps spread influence around the nation, and gives us definitive winners and losers. Let me take up each in turn.

America has had good, competitive, two-party elections for a long time. Under our current system, the partisan pattern of our administrations over the last fifty years has looked like this: D-R-R-D-R-R-R-D-D-R-R-D-D-R. Some of those elections have been razor thin, some blowouts. But, America needs a competitive electoral system and the Electoral College math has given us that.

Money, it has been said, is the “mother’s milk” of politics, and our campaigns are largely fought out on the airwaves. Well, where does most of the money in politics come from? Where are most of the media headquartered? The answers of course, are the same. Most political money comes from the same zip codes around which our national media are headquartered. The Electoral College is the one force in our presidential politics that helps spread influence around the country. In the last election, rural and small town Pennsylvanians, Michiganders and Minnesotans had the chance to influence the election as well as did the urban/suburban donors and the media elite.

On that score, keep in mind that Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in one county alone—Los Angeles—by more votes than Trump’s winning margins in the whole states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, North Carolina, Michigan, Iowa, Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin and South Carolina combined!

The Electoral College math gives us a solid and legally legitimate winner every time. When popular margins are small, the Electoral College almost always exaggerates the size of the win, giving the incoming president more legitimately with the public than they might have otherwise. When we have elections where the president-elect actually gets a minority of the votes cast, such as Bill Clinton who received just over 4 in 10 votes cast for president, the president-elect receives a strong majority from the Electors.

Third, in an age when “federalism” has been under assault for nearly a century, the Electoral College reminds us that our founders bequeathed to us a “federal republic,” not one undifferentiated national democracy. All our elections are conducted within state boundaries and votes are counted within the states and according to their rules. In our federal system, the states are to be the locus of our politics and in a period of centralization, the EC serves as a bulwark for the founder’s vision.

It may be complicated and it may be old—as old as the Republic itself—but the Electoral College cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or something that can be tweaked or out rightly abolished without significant consequences to our politics and the future of the Republic. Bent on pruning as they are, our reformers need to be very careful how close they may be hacking to the roots of the tree of liberty.

Gary L. Gregg is director of the McConnell Center and host of the podcast Vital Remnants

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would candidates complain about the rules of an election after they have lost the contest? Shouldn’t they be running campaigns according to the rules (electoral college) rather than that which they prefer (popular vote)?
  2. Why did the framers of the Constitution create a system not only organized around the states, but one that favored smaller states?
  3. What would be the downside in having the president decided by a straight popular vote?

Sign up to receive new content from the Ford Forum.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: