Every four years, along with the presidential election come criticisms of the Electoral College. Some people are just unhappy their candidate lost, but others are truly uncertain. Why do we have this system? How does it work? And should we keep it?
At the Constitutional Convention, during the hot summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, the American Founders argued about how to elect the president. The first proposal was that Congress do it. It works that way today in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and many other countries. Their congress, which they call parliament, elects their president, which they call a prime minister.
The Founders rejected this because they wanted presidents to be independent of Congress. They considered holding one big national election—a national popular vote. But then a handful of big states, or the biggest cities, might control who becomes president.
It was at the very end of the Constitutional Convention that a committee of eleven members, including James Madison, came up with the Electoral College. Think of it as a compromise, or mash-up, of the two other ideas. The people have power, but it is channeled through our states and based on our representation in Congress.
In the Electoral College, each state gets as many presidential electors as we have members in the House and the Senate. States with more people have more members of the House, but each state has two senators. That means the smallest states get three electors, and bigger states get more. (Colorado has eight.)
The Constitution gives state legislatures the power to figure out how to choose their state’s electors. This was meant to ensure that electors represent their state. Today, Colorado and 47 other states hold a state-wide election and choose all their electors based on the result. Maine and Nebraska choose one elector from each of their congressional districts and then the remaining two based on their statewide vote.
These presidential electors are nominated by their own political party and expected to cast their electoral votes for president and vice president for their party’s nominees. That almost always happens, although sometimes electors—usually on the losing side—cast a “faithless” vote just to make a statement.
Far from being “undemocratic,” the Electoral College is a two-step democratic process. It is much more democratic than parliamentary systems in places like Canada. And the Electoral College still does what the American Founders designed it to do: protect those of us who live in small states.
The 2016 election showed how this works. Hillary Clinton believed she would win no matter what, so she slacked off her efforts to win votes in the middle of the country. The result was that she lost states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin where Democrats had won for a generation. She did, however, rack up huge margins in big cities, especially in California. That gave her a popular vote majority, but not the White House.
The Electoral College forces candidates and parties to reach out to more Americans, and not to ignore the heartland of our country. It does this even though the Electoral College result almost always matches up with the popular vote result. In every election, it pushes candidates to build broader coalitions.
The Electoral College also keeps states in charge of elections, and it contains election disputes within individual states. There has never been a nationwide recount thanks to the Electoral College.
Today, a lobbying group from California called National Popular Vote is trying to convince state legislators to manipulate the Electoral College. Their plan, which goes into effect if passed by enough states to control the election outcome, is for states to ignore their own voters and instead choose presidential electors based on the nationwide vote. In 2016, that would have given all of Colorado’s electoral votes to Hillary Clinton.
The National Popular Vote plan is a dangerous abuse of power. Thankfully, Colorado voters have the chance to reject it this fall. Coloradans who care about the Constitution and the state’s influence in presidential elections need to stand up for the Electoral College in November.
Coloradans who care about the Constitution and their state’s voice in presidential elections need to continue to remind their state legislators to stand up for the Electoral College.
Trent England, the author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College and the executive director of Save Our States, lives in Oklahoma City.