Why Don't We Abolish the Electoral College?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 1 2000 2:45 PM

Why Don't We Abolish the Electoral College?

It's anachronistic, it's anti-democratic, and it's resulted in three men who lost the popular vote becoming president. So why don't we just get rid of it?

Advertisement

Abolishing the Electoral College would require the busy work of a constitutional amendment, and since the issue only comes up every four years and it's almost always worked, it's not a real winner of an issue for a politician to get behind.

What if a presidential candidate loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College?

Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison could tell you that person becomes president of the United States. John Quincy Adams could tell you that you can lose the popular vote and the Electoral College vote, but as long as your opponent doesn't get an Electoral College majority, you can be selected president by the House of Representatives.

What if there is an Electoral College tie?

Imagine this: Al Gore is president, and Dick Cheney is vice president. Our system allows for such a possibility because if there is a tie, the newly elected House decides on the president, and the Senate decides on the vice president. A divided Congress could produce a president and vice president of different parties. In the House each state delegation gets one vote (So there! representative democracy). If a delegation is evenly split along party lines and can't come to a consensus, it forfeits its vote. In the Senate each senator has a vote.

Who are the electors?

The electors are usually active members of their state party and are selected by the party to appear on the ballot of their presidential candidate. There are essentially no federal qualifications to be an elector although none can be a current national office holder nor have "engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States." Coretta Scott King was an elector from Georgia, and before he was selected Ronald Reagan's CIA chief, William Casey was an elector from New York.

Do electors have to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state?

Not exactly. The Constitution does not require it, but some states have laws for the removal and replacement of a "faithless" elector. More than 99 percent of the time, electors behave themselves and vote for the candidate who carried their state. But in 1972 a Virginia elector pledged to Richard Nixon voted for the Libertarian candidate, in 1976 a Washington elector bolted from Gerald Ford to vote for Ronald Reagan, and in 1988 a West Virginia elector made a vast improvement to the ticket by selecting vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen as president and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis as vice president.

How did the system get put into place?

Some of the founders wanted direct elections, and some thought Congress should elect the president in order to temper the power of the majority. Anticipating Rube Goldberg, they came up with the Electoral College.

Why is it called the Electoral College?

The term for electors was taken from the German princes of the Holy Roman Empire who selected the emperor. (Explainer was assured this is not a joke.) College in this case means people coming together for a common purpose.

Explainer thanks Michael White of the Office of the Federal Register, Michael J. Glennon of the University of California at Davis School of Law and many Slate readers for their suggestions. For more, see this site.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 21 2014 9:18 AM Oh, Boy Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister dresses her 4-year-old son in pink tutus.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:25 AM The Brilliant Fake Novels of Listen Up Philip
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 9:39 AM The International-Student Revolving Door Foreign students shouldn’t have to prove they’ll go home after graduating to get a visa.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.