What is the Electoral College?
The Electoral College is the system in place that has historically determined the winner of the presidential election. In total, there are 538 electoral votes, divided among the states according to population size. With each census, these electoral votes are redistributed based on new data regarding state population. As of 2020, the state with the largest number of votes is California, with 55 electoral votes. The states with the lowest number of votes are Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming, all holding 3 electoral votes.
Electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who wins the statewide election, or the popular vote for a single state. In all states but Maine and Nebraska, the winner of each state will take all of that state’s electoral votes. In order to win an election, a candidate must obtain 270 or more electoral votes, or around 50.2% of all votes.
Pros and Cons of the Electoral College
The Electoral College process has garnered plenty of criticism as well as praise, especially as politics in recent years have become increasingly polarized.
Dr. Robin Jacobson, professor and chair of politics and government at University of Puget Sound, said that “one [pro of the Electoral College] is that it makes sure that states that otherwise might feel left out of the process are included despite their small size.”
Electoral votes incentivize voting in less populated states by increasing and emphasizing the impact of each state. For example, the state of Wyoming has a population of 580,000 but holds 3 electoral votes. While its actual population makes up only 0.18% of the U.S. population, their electoral votes are 1.1% of all electoral votes. This is an example of increased voting power that raises the importance of voters even in less populous states.
“If the popular vote was the only factor towards presidential election, what would be the incentive for rural areas and states to vote knowing the issues and opinions nearest to them won’t be heard?” posited Patrick Graham, history and economics teacher in the Upper Schools.
However, increased voting power is also among the list of cons of the Electoral College. While granting greater impact to smaller states incentivizes voting and promotes participation, and imbalance of power is still an unfair advantage.
“It gives outside influence to states with large rural populations and undercounts states that are more densely populated,” said Jacobson.
Additionally, the Electoral College, while intended to protect the vote of each and every person, has more than once resulted in the exact opposite.
“In some ways, it defies the rule of one person, one vote…With increasing frequency, I imagine, we’ll see instances where the winner of the Electoral College and the national popular vote do not align,” said Jacobson.
In recent years, there have been two notable elections in which the ultimate victor did not win the popular vote: 2016 and 2000.
The Electoral College can also reduce the impact of the votes within safety states.
“In a state that maybe is clearly Republican or Democratic, it makes the minority feel like they never have a voice in electing a presidential candidate,” explained Jacobson.
What is the National Vote Interstate Compact?
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) is an agreement among states and the District of Columbia to award their respective electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote of the presidential election. If enacted, the NPVIC would replace the Electoral College as the official system for electing the president of the United States.
In order for the compact to be put in motion, the cumulative electoral votes of participating states must equal or exceed 270 before July 20 in the year of the election. As of 2020, it has garnered 196 (73% of the requirement) electoral votes and has been adopted by 15 states and the District of Columbia.
Pros and Cons of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact
Like the Electoral College, the NPVIC is a subject of much debate. Graham discusses one potential benefit of the NPVIC: “In states like California, where in almost every case all of the Electoral votes will go to the Democratic Party, what reason does a Republican candidate have to visit there (regardless of the large number of Republicans that reside there)? The same goes for Republican strongholds and a Democratic candidate. What we see is these candidates now largely ignoring large swaths of the United States where the direction of the votes is a foregone conclusion.”
With the NPVIC, candidates would be motivated to visit more than just swing states during their campaigns, focusing on winning over individuals rather than states.
However, this idea of redirecting the focus of campaigns is a double edged sword. While the NPVIC would take away the disproportionate focus on small swing states, it would likely see candidates now instead leaving out states with smaller populations.
“You would see campaigns giving different geographic emphasis. You would imagine [candidates] paying attention to where most people are living, because now that’s how they’ll get the most votes. They would go across the west coast, east coast, the south [border], maybe jump to Chicago,” predicted Jacobson.
Additionally, Dr. Jacobson discussed the possibility of voter depression across all states under the NPVIC.
“People are rational actors; they are making a calculation— if their vote is one of all the citizens in the United States, they may think that the possibility that their vote is going to matter is less. It is uncertain what the effect on the motivation of the voters will be. You might be seeing people throw up their hands and say, ‘what does one vote in the whole country matter?’”
Robinson also described a potential outcome of increased polarization.
“Moving to a popular vote…I don’t think it will help. I think it might actually inflame [the issue of polarization]. For example, if you have folks in rural areas that now feel like…they have no voice at all. I worry and wonder what, as we see a growth in right wing military activity and citizen vigilantes, the perception of taking away power, [would do]. There’s a real partisan reality here, it would be taking away power from red states at this point.”
Will the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact be implemented?
“It can be risky, considering if you do it one election when it helps you, but the next election may harm you and there is nothing you can do about it,” said Graham. “Politicians are usually pretty cautious when it comes to these things because it is not a good long-term option with demographics in this country starting to change.”
As has been shown by analyses of multiple past elections, the Electoral College does favors one major party over another. Likewise, the winner of the popular vote is variable. Signing onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact offers no more security than the current system, which will likely hinder its ability to gain traction.
Robinson stated, “It depends on the outcome [of the election]. Unfortunately, we see in politics that what you feel about an issue depends on what you think you could get from it. Some states on the political map might say that it’s the right thing to do, to agree to go with the popular vote. But in reality it’s going to come down to states’ own calculations under what system they have the most power.”
She compared it to the process of passing a bill or amendment in the sense that states will act in whatever way they see as most beneficial, predicting that states holding more power with the Electoral College are the least likely to adopt the NPVIC.
“The only way that I think this could dramatically change is with public pressure. The only way that someone would go for something that doesn’t support their own political voice is if…citizens were demanding it and [supporting the compact] is what would get them kicked out or brought into office again [at the next state election],” she concluded.
This story was originally published on Inkwell on November 2, 2020.