Winner takes all. An analysis of the electoral college

Angelo D'Agostini

The way in which presidential elections are decided in the United States is not based on a nation-wide popular vote, but on electoral points deriving from State-based popular votes. Specifically, there are 538 electoral votes distributed across all 50 States (and the District of Columbia) based on their populations in relation to the others. When a candidate wins the popular vote of a State, the State’s proportional electoral college votes are accredited to the candidate who won (ex: Donald Trump wins the popular vote of Texas; Texas’ 38 electoral votes are assigned to Donald Trump. This occurs for every State and the first candidate to reach 270 electoral college votes wins the presidency.) When the electoral college contradicts the nation-wide popular vote, objections arise; specifically due to the fact that the United States is (a variation of) a democracy.

Since the last United States presidential election, the debate surrounding the electoral college was reignited. Donald Trump earned 305 electoral votes with only 46% of the nation-wide popular vote (62 million votes). Hillary Clinton acquired 227 electoral college votes, but won 48% of the nation-wide popular vote (65 million votes). Debates and protests about the format of the system ensued from the conceptualization that citizens’ votes do not actually have meaning. However, this is not a common occurrence; and in fact, this has only happened five times in the United States’ 243-year history.

The electoral college was designed by the founding fathers to prevent the uneducated/easily deceived voters from being allured by persuasive tyrannies and factions. By balancing the voting power among States, basing it on their populations, the framers created a protection against one of the most intricate democratic complexities: majority rule. The electoral college was carefully designed with the acknowledgment that voters from different regions of the country have different needs and ideologies. If nation-wide popular vote was the established voting method, most of the country would not be involved in selecting the president. Candidates could restrict their campaign to areas with large populations, neglecting the needs of citizens from sparse communities.

Although the electoral college has been reliably functioning, there are well-established negatives that co-exist with the system. The electoral college places too much emphasis on swing-state elections. Public Broadcasting Service reported that in 2016, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump made more than 90% of their campaign stops in just eleven swing-states which decided the election. In addition, the system neglects the will of the people. With a population of 327 million, only 538 people who make up the electoral college actually vote for the president in a winner-takes-all scenario.

Although the system has been facing strong pushback since the Trump election in 2016, it is unlikely that the electoral college will ever be abolished due to the fact that a super majority is needed for its abolishment. Because the electoral college is a Constitutional Amendment (enumerated in Article II which pertains to the election of the Executive branch), 2/3rds of Congress (or 356/535 members), plus 38/50 states, would have to vote for the system’s annulment. Given the polarization that characterizes the American political system, and the reality that such elimination debates resurface when a party loses (assuming the winning party understands their victory resulted from the electoral college, prompting them to become advocates) the likelihood of the 2/3rds of States and representatives joining together to abolish the electoral college seems impossible.

There is an 8.62% chance that the winner of the 2020 election will be victorious without the nation-wide popular vote; odds that seem implausible. However, if Donald Trump manages to be reelected by replicable means as of 2016, it can be guaranteed that the electoral college will face the largest backlash ever experienced since its inception.

Public Affairs e Comunicazione dell'Istituto per la Competitività (I-Com). Nata a Venezia nel 1986, lavora come istruttrice di vela durante gli anni del liceo e dell’università. Si laurea in giurisprudenza all’Università di Bologna con una tesi in diritto della navigazione.

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