Let’s Dump The Electoral College - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Matthew Leonard. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.

When a sports team scores more points than its opponent, it wins.

Opinion article badge

And when a political candidate garners more votes than an opponent, they win — except if the election is for the presidency of the United States.

It’s called the Electoral College, it was last amended in 1887, and it’s a terribly undemocratic way to choose the most powerful leader in the free world. That should instead be by popular vote, as is the case for U.S. and state senators and representatives, governors, mayors, legislators and on down the line.

Because of the Electoral College, however, the winner of the national popular vote has lost the election five times in the nation’s history. Two of the elections were in this century: in 2000 with George W. Bush versus Al Gore, and in 2016 with Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton.

Should Trump run again in 2024, as seems likely, it is equally probable that he will protest the results if he loses again. After all, he still hasn’t conceded losing last time — by 7 million votes, no less — to Joe Biden.

In the 1880 presidential election, James Garfield narrowly won the popular vote but swept the Electoral College in the Midwest and Northeast.
In the 1880 presidential election, James Garfield narrowly won the popular vote but swept the Electoral College in the Midwest and Northeast. 

And Trump’s hardcore supporters are aggressively embracing election denialism even as they downplay the Jan. 6 insurrection that was intended to illegally deliver the election to Trump.

Happily, both the U.S. House and Senate have introduced legislation to update the 135-year-old Electoral Count Act, which — as PolitiFact recently observed — “supporters of then-President Donald Trump exploited for its murkiness” in the efforts to overturn the 2020 race.

In July a bipartisan group of senators brought forth the Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act of 2022 to clarify aspects of the 1887 law, widely described as flawed, ambiguous and archaic.

And last week a Democrat and Republican on the House committee investigating the events of Jan. 6 introduced the Presidential Election Reform Act.

The PolitiFact analysis by Louis Jacobson says there is a lot of overlap in the bills, although both sides would have to agree on a final version.

“The bills have the same goals: to prevent a repeat of what Trump and his allies did on Jan. 6, when they exploited uncertainties in the law,” Jacobson writes. “But the specifics on how that would be achieved varies in some cases.”

The legislation aims to do the following:

  • Make clear that the vice president’s role in counting votes “is ceremonial.”
  • Require that “alternative electors” must follow proper procedures.
  • Clarify that states must certify their electoral votes.
  • Increase the number of lawmakers needed to challenge a state’s electoral votes.

It’s a noble effort by Congress, a step toward guarding against what happened on Jan. 6. But here’s a better idea: Let’s get rid of the Electoral College altogether.

Winner Not Take All

The Electoral College was established in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, although the words “electoral college” are not actually used. Each state has as many “electors” as it has House representatives — something determined by U.S. Census numbers — plus the two senators that every state has. The District of Columbia has three electors.

When voters vote in a presidential election, then, they are not actually voting for a president and VP but rather the slate of electors, usually selected by the candidate’s political party, who are then expected to cast their ballots for the winning ticket. There are 538 total electors and a majority of 270 is needed to elect a president.

Here is where the unfairness of the Electoral College — which is a process, not an actual physical place — is made manifest:

  • Most states have a winner-take-all system, even if an election is close. If one candidate defeats another 50.1% to 49.9%, for example, the winner gets all the electoral votes — including all 55 in California, the largest state. Only Nebraska and Maine allow for proportional representation.
  • Though it is a national election, most presidential contests in the modern era focus on swing states, especially Arizona (with 11 electoral votes), Florida (29), Georgia (16), Michigan (16), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20) and Wisconsin (10). That’s where the candidates spend most of their time and money trying to sway voters.
  • Small states like Iowa (6) and New Hampshire (4) have outsize influence because they traditionally hold the first presidential caucus and primary. That is changing, with more diverse states such as North Carolina (15) and Nevada (6) now also the sites of early contests. But voters in the second- and fourth-largest states, Texas (38) and New York (29), are effectively marginalized.
  • Electors sometimes vote in opposition to the candidate favored by a majority of a state’s voters. It happened as recently as the 2016 election, when seven “faithless electors” — including David Mulinix of Hawaii, who voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton — defected.
  • “Third parties have not fared well in the Electoral College system,” according to the National Archives. “Although Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote nationwide in 1992, he did not win any electoral votes since he was not particularly strong in any one state. In 2016, Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, qualified for the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia but also failed to win any electoral votes.”

No Trust In Voters

Supporters of the Electoral College argue that it is the system the founders wanted, that the Constitution should rarely be amended, and that large states should not have “undue influence.”

But that was a very long time ago in a very different nation.

The 1953 electoral vote count declared Dwight D. Eisenhower the winner.
The 1953 electoral vote count declared Dwight D. Eisenhower the winner. Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

Darrell West of the Brookings Institution points out that delegates had “an anti-majoritarian concern in mind. At a time when many people were not well-educated, they wanted a body of wise men (women lacked the franchise) who would deliberate over leading contenders and choose the best man for the presidency. They explicitly rejected a popular vote for president because they did not trust voters to make a wise choice.”

A constitutional amendment is needed to jettison the Electoral College. That calls for an amendment to be proposed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of all states.

Yes, that’s a high bar. But according to the National Archives, more than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College.

“There have been more proposals for Constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College than on any other subject,” according to its website.

That should come as no surprise.

Read this next:

Danny De Gracia: Time To Stop Making Excuses And Just Get Started Already

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Matthew Leonard. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

Great op-edReaders please know there is already a movement to elect our presidents by National Popular Vote. There is a wealth of information on their websiteState by state the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact law has passed. Those states total 195 electors. Once the total gets to 270 it will activate and as a block they will elect whoever wins the most votes nationally. This works within the Electoral College frameworkHawaii passed this law and counts among the 195 electors. See the website, many states need to pass this. We need 75 more electors. Please tell friends and post that website link on your social media. The movement is grassroots supported. The law may have to pass by referendum in some states which involves expensive ads. Some PACs don’t want our president elected by the majority! In 2020, they funded a referendum to withdraw Colorado from the Compact, but lostI appeal to substantial financial backers to help this important movement. Making Every Vote Equal would enfranchise all voters. Nationally, many voters don't believe the government works for them. This is a positive and very visible, tangible step to begin the repair

Because_Democracy_Is_Worth_It · 1 year ago

The reality is that eliminating the Electoral College will result on a focus on states with the largest populations. Politicians will only spend their time campaigning in New York and California. Every other state will become an inconsequential backwater. The Electoral College forces politicians to get their viewpoint out to John Q. Public in towns and cities across the country. Politicians must make their positions known and defend those positions to a wide cross section of the US population. Otherwise, the only thing that will matter is what the people in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco think.

WildJim · 1 year ago

Wow, sadly there's a whole lot of state's rights people here. It seems that we don't live in a country anymore, we live amongst 49 other states. I don't think that's what our founding fathers had in mind when they wrote the constitution. It is obvious to me that if we live in a country, and the popular vote should be the sole indicator of who puts the politicians in power. Why would we be the only country in the world where the popular vote does not decide the leader? The Electoral College is a sham, designed to let the minority stop the majority from ruling with the will of the people. It makes no sense that the vastly uneducated, unpopulated rural areas which are dominated by the red States, have as much say as the more populous "blue" states. It seems to me that many who comment in these notes prefer that a minority of people rule the majority. It also seems to me, that many are ignorant of the problems that are plaguing the Republican party right now. Justice, and accountability, are beginning to come to fruition for many for the crimes that were committed in the public eye.

Scotty_Poppins · 1 year ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.