In the United States, some people talk about Electoral College reform or abolition, but it is important to go through what that means.
Electing the American president has been done the same way for over 200 years. Yet, it is not a simple matter of “either we have an Electoral College or we don’t,” because there are ways to modify how the Electoral College works even if it is kept. Now, let’s be clear about one thing up front: the Electoral College to choose the President of the United States has been enshrined in the Constitution since it was written. There are plenty of Americans who support keeping the Electoral College how it is today.
However, there are also many who want reform or abolition. A Gallup survey conducted in August and September 2020 revealed that a majority of Americans surveyed were in favor of abolishing the Electoral College. 61 percent of adults wanted to make the move, but that included just 23 of self-identifying Republicans.1 In the past, Republican support for doing away with the Electoral College was much higher according to Gallup than it is now, but those numbers have cratered.
During the 2020 presidential election and its blowback, which carried over into 2021, it came front and center once again. Every nuance of the process was brought under scrutiny, from certification of state results to selecting slates of electors, even to the unfortunately well-covered count of the Electoral College vote in a joint session of Congress. America got an up-close look at the Electoral College as it confirmed Joe Biden’s victory, but did it win any support?
In politics, especially in the United States, you are not going to make everybody happy. Not everyone would enjoy abolishing the Electoral College, nor would everyone be pleased to keep it. Here, we will address the pros and cons of not just abolition, but reform variants of the Electoral College to explore the issue as best we can.
Option 1: No Electoral College Reform, Status Quo
Each state receives a number of electoral votes based upon their number of senators (2) and number of representatives (varies). Washington, DC also receives three for a total of 538 possible votes. 270, a simple majority, is required to win the election, or else the House of Representatives decides the winner. Two states, Maine and Nebaska, allocate their electoral votes based on the statewide winner and individual congressional district winners. All other states including the District of Columbia are winner-take-all.
As seen by the Founding Fathers, the Electoral College is a check on the popular vote to ensure that smaller states are also heard. States like Iowa and New Hampshire could have key roles in a close national election.
You could have, and have had, presidents elected who lost the popular vote but still got elected. The 2016 was the most notable instance of this, in which Donald Trump lost the popular vote by two points to Hillary Clinton but stitched together enough close state victories to go over the top. This is the key reason those who oppose the Electoral College do so, as they challenge the legitimacy of such results.
Option 1 Applied to 2020 Election
Joe Biden won 306 electoral votes to Donald Trump’s 232. The popular vote, which Biden won by 7,059,741 votes, is not relevant on a national scale, but on 50 statewide scales plus Washington, DC.
Option 2: Abolish the Electoral College
The president and vice president will be elected by national popular vote, ostensibly on a first-past-the-post basis. Whichever ticket gets the most votes wins the election.
The sans-EC system is very easy to understand: You get the most votes, you win. This also opens the door to more organized third-party contenders shaking up the status quo and becoming more relevant, perhaps cracking the window open against the two-party system.
Smaller states completely lose relevance in the process. Nobody will be campaigning in Iowa or New Hampshire except during primary season as they in essence do not matter. Further, if the system remains a first-past-the-post electoral model, a president could be elected with a plurality of the vote under 50 percent — possibly well under. This would possibly necessitate further reform, whether in adopting a national ranked-choice voting model or requiring a presidential runoff a la France or Brazil should nobody win a majority outright, the latter of which would mean longer campaigns.
Option 2 Applied to 2020 Election
Joe Biden wins the 2020 election by 7,059,741 votes, or about 4.5 percent nationwide over incumbent Donald Trump. It became particularly lopsided once California’s votes added to the total, a state in which Biden won by about 5.1 million votes.
Option 3: The Maine-Nebraska Model
The winner of a state receives the two electoral votes designated because of the state’s senators on a “winner take all” basis. The remaining electoral votes are divided up based on which candidate won a particular congressional district. For example, in Maine in 2016, Donald Trump lost Maine as a whole but carried one of its two House seats. He was awarded one electoral vote in Maine while Hillary Clinton got the other three. Due to logic and for the purposes of this exercise, the District and Columbia and all single-seat states are winner-take-all.
Since the 2020 election’s conclusion, there are other states looking into this Electoral College reform. New York, for example, has had legislation proposed to use this model.2 Republicans have also proposed this change in Wisconsin, a state won by Joe Biden in November 2020.3
It has the potential to reward candidates with electoral votes in states where perhaps they would not otherwise get them, presenting a more accurate picture of how the nation has voted. For example, the Republicans may get a handful of electoral votes in California and the Pacific Northwest for winning safe seats there, while Democrats cash in on safely blue seats in the South in states where the GOP will typically sweep all the electoral votes.
Gerrymandering is a major factor in the election of the US House, but now plays a major role in the election of the president as well. A House’s delegation composition would only matter in the election of a president if no candidate receives 270, but in this setup, gerrymandered districts are now producing electoral votes across the country. If districts are not drawn in a fair manner, this method does not accomplish what is intended.
Option 3 Applied to 2020 Election
The final result is the same, but its look is dramatically different. At the time of this writing, final results were not determined in all 435 Congressional districts, but based off of information and visualizations available to us, we estimate Joe Biden would have won 271 electoral votes under this model. Donald Trump would have won 267.4, 5 Some favorable Republican district lines have augmented the results in the GOP’s favor to a degree, but not enough to overcome Biden’s lead.
Option 4: Maine-Nebraska Hybrid Proportional Model
The winner of a state receives two electoral votes. The remaining electoral votes per state are divided proportionally based upon the popular vote. A minimum threshold (e.g. five percent) may be established in order to qualify to receive electoral votes as a way of ensuring “serious” candidates get them.
This borrows the advantage of the Maine-Nebraska model, which is that electoral votes are more closely awarded based on how the state actually voted, but eliminates gerrymandering as a problem. The two statewide electoral votes are winner-take-all, but the remaining electoral votes for the House districts are determined by vote proportion. It also creates a more inclusive possibility of minor-party candidates achieving electoral votes in larger states.
Different states would need to have different quotas to be met in order to qualify for an electoral vote. In New Hampshire, which has two House seats, the threshold is going to be a lot higher than in California, which has 53. In the latter, a few percent of the vote could get you an electoral vote whereas in New Hampshire or Maine, minor-party candidates have little chance of getting an electoral vote. States with enough electoral votes may wish to set a minimum threshold (say, five percent) like Germany and New Zealand do in their legislative elections, though some may call it unfair. Further, closer elections could get thrown to the House more often as minor party candidates could in theory prevent the leader from getting to 270 (and said minor-party candidates will then have no chance of being elected by the House).
Option 4 Applied to 2020 Election
Another slightly different variation, but the same end result: Joe Biden wins the election. Under this plan, Biden receives 278 electoral votes while Donald Trump gets 260. Most states award at least one electoral vote to the losing candidate under this plan. The math of achieving these electoral vote splits is also demonstrated here.
Option 5: All-Proportional Electoral College
The number of electoral votes a candidate receives is directly proportional to their share of the popular vote nationwide. Just like in the Hybrid Proportional model, a minimum threshold of the vote could be established in order to qualify for electoral votes. Should no candidate receive a simple majority of the popular vote, the election is thrown into the House of Representatives for a contingent election.
There would be no doubt that the Electoral College outcome would reflect the popular vote. It can’t get that much clearer aside from, you know, using the popular vote.
People will want to know, why not just let the popular vote decide it at that point, and if no candidate receives 50 percent, then it goes to the House? Or why not institute ranked-choice voting to offset the latter? Having it set up this way would render the Electoral College irrelevant unless there is a notable minor-party candidate siphoning votes and kicking it to the House.
Option 5 Applied to 2020 Election
This assumes that a candidate must receive five percent of the popular vote in order to receive electoral votes. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are the only candidates to meet that threshold. When dropping all other candidates out, Biden and Trump combine for 98.17 percent of the vote. Biden’s adjusted share of the electoral vote is 51.31 percent divided by 98.17 percent, or 52.27 percent. Trump, therefore, gets 47.73 percent of the electoral votes. This gives Joe Biden 281 electoral votes to Donald Trump’s 257. Note that this is quite close to the Hybrid Proportional result of 278 to 260.
It is important to note that none of the five options would have affected the ultimate outcome of the 2020 election: a Joe Biden victory.
Option 5 Applied to 1992 Election
We have to go back to 1992 for the last third-party candidate to make a serious dent in the popular vote. That was Ross Perot, getting almost 19 percent of Americans’ votes. Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Ross Perot would all easily reach the five percent threshold.
Clinton received 43.01 percent, Bush got 37.45 percent, and Perot took in 18.91 percent, for a total of 99.37 percent. Adjusting to remove the non-viable candidates, Clinton is at 43.28, Bush has 37.69, and Perot has 19.03. You already know no candidate got to 270 off of these numbers, so the election will go to the House. The electoral vote counts are: Clinton 233, Bush 203, and Perot 102.
A contingent election would have gone like this: Bill Clinton would have won 29 state delegations and the election. 11 delegations would have been ties. Nine would have gone to President Bush. Finally, nobody knows what Bernie Sanders in Vermont would have done, nor would it have mattered in this case, but Clinton would have likely been his pick. The Senate would have elected Al Gore to the Vice Presidency by a 57 to 43 vote, with Gore voting for himself if he were to stick around that long.
Sources: Electoral College Reform Further Reading
- Megan Brenan, “61% of Americans Support Abolishing Electoral College,” Gallup, 24 September 2020.
- Robert Harding, “NY senator wants to award state’s electoral votes by congressional district,” The Auburn Citizen, 17 December 2020.
- Melanie Conklin, “GOP has bill to reallocate Wisconsin’s electoral votes by congressional district,” Wisconsin Examiner, 8 January 2021.
- David Nir, “Daily Kos Elections’ presidential results by congressional district for 2020, 2016, and 2012,” Daily Kos, 19 November 2020.
- Christopher G. Healey, “2020 U.S. Election Visualizations,” North Carolina State University, Department of Computer Science, accessed 9 January 2021.