Why the US president isn't elected by popular vote

Yahoo Staff Writer
·7 min read

Watch: How does the electoral college work?

Words by: Jesús del Toro

In the US election, a candidate becomes president not by winning a majority of the national popular vote but through a system called the Electoral College, which allots electoral votes to the 50 states and the District of Columbia largely based on their population.

There are a total of 538 electoral votes, or “electors,” meaning a candidate needs to secure 270 to win.

There have only been five occasions in the history of the US (three in the 19th century) when the president-elect hasn't been the candidate with the most popular votes, and this has allowed the system to endure.

The two most recent occasions when the president had not won the popular vote (George W Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016) sparked discussion as to the relevance of the Electoral College, as people questioned the reason for preserving a system that doesn't always follow the democratic principle of the majority of a nation.

CARSON CITY, NV - OCTOBER 18: President Donald Trump gestures during a campaign rally on October 18, 2020 in Carson City, Nevada. With 16 days to go before the November election, President Trump is back on the campaign trail with multiple daily events as he continues to campaign against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Carson City, Nevada. (Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

The origins of the Electoral College

In the late 18th century, when the US constitution was drafted, the practice of holding elections with extensive popular participation to elect a government did not exist. Parliamentary elections had been held in England for decades, but only a small sector of the population could vote. The first election in France took place in 1791, after the first US election, and although several million people took part, only the citizens who paid taxes could do so.

A map showing how the electoral college system is distributed. (Reuters)
A map showing how the Electoral College system is distributed. (Reuters)

The Electoral College system was created during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and was the result of a compromise between those who were advocating for the popular vote and those who wanted the president to be appointed by Congress. In an age when the national identity still had not been defined and there was a lot of competition between the states, it was feared that the large, populous states might overpower those with fewer inhabitants.

It has also been mentioned that creating a specific and transient body to elect the president would prevent its members from being co-opted by other interests. The aim was also to prevent someone supported by a sizeable popular vote from being able to amass such power so as to become tyrannical, a notion combined with a kind of repulsion or fear of granting power to the masses.

So the Convention delegates went for an indirect system in which the members of the Electoral College would be appointed in each state, by popular vote or by decision of the state legislature, and these electors, in turn, would elect the president.

How each state's electors are defined

In deciding how many electors correspond to each state, the decision again aimed to find a balance. For example, the southern states, with a considerable population of slaves in comparison with the small number of white people (who could vote), would be at a disadvantage to the northern states, where the proportion of slaves was smaller. In Virginia, 39.1% of the population was enslaved, while it was 6.3% in New York and practically zero in Massachusetts, according to the 1790 census.

Granting electors only based on the white population would put the southern states at a disadvantage compared to the northern ones, but those in the north were reluctant to take the entire population of the south into consideration unless slavery was abolished completely, a notion that was unacceptable to the south. This controversy also cropped up in defining congressional districts and representatives and in establishing taxes.

Hillary Clinton embraces Bill Clinton after accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. Xxx Jg16967 Jpg A Eln Usa Pa (Photo by Jack Gruber/USA Today Network/Sipa USA)
Hillary Clinton embraces Bill Clinton after accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. She went on to lose the election, despite winning the popular vote. (Jack Gruber/USA Today Network/Sipa USA)

The solution, which had nothing to do with granting freedom or rights to the slaves, was to consider a slave three-fifths of a person. This gave the southern states sufficient weight in the Electoral College and in Congress so that the system, and the entire Constitution in general, could be approved. And it was also acceptable to the north since it meant not recognising the full population weight of the states that defended slavery.

The agreement was largely able, in the interests of preserving the union, to put the slavery issue to one side – despite being contrary to the principles of freedom, equality and democracy. It remained in place until the rise of abolitionism, the secession of the south, the Civil War, the northern victory and the end of slavery in the 1860s.

The 538 members of the Electoral College are appointed based on the number of representatives a state has in the lower house of Congress, plus its two senators, and a majority vote of 270 is needed to elect a president. Defenders of the system say it promotes federalism and prevents the possibility of challenges and recounts on a national level.

And although the prospect of electors who vote against the result of their state's popular vote has existed and was a threat to the system, a recent Supreme Court ruling validated the constitutionality of state laws that punish or replace any such "faithless" electors.

A fair system?

There is a lot of debate about whether the Electoral College model gives excessive weight to certain competitive states that can, in a close election, decide who wins the presidency by a few votes, and therefore monopolise the attention and resources of campaigns while other states are ignored.

There is also a criticism that not giving priority to direct suffrage at national level detracts from democracy and that citizens in non-competitive states, where one party largely dominates, lose the motivation to go to the polls.

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In 2016, Hillary Clinton got several million votes more than Donald Trump at the national level, but lost the election by a margin of tens of thousands of votes in three states that tipped the balance in favour of Trump. In practice, the weight of the votes of the citizens in those three states was much greater than that of others, which for some people goes against the notion that every citizen has a vote of equal value and significance.

Even though in the media and academia there is an intense debate over the possibility of eliminating the Electoral College and switching to a system of direct election by popular vote, there is currently no viable constitutional amendment initiative to achieve this, nor are there the political conditions for it to be discussed and voted on.

Many proposals have been presented to reform or abolish the Electoral College, but none have come to fruition. One made substantial progress in Congress between 1969 and 1970, but was blocked and died in the Senate thanks to opposition from conservative legislators and small states, including both Democrats and Republicans.

There is an initiative called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, in which several states have committed to allocating their votes in the Electoral College to the candidate who gets the most votes at national level (even if that candidate didn't win in one or several of those states). However, this agreement would only be relevant if the states that joined it added up to 270 votes, the number necessary to elect the president. Until now, that states that have joined add up to only 196 votes in the Electoral College.

So, in the 2020 election, once again, whoever gets the majority of the electoral votes will assume the presidency. In a very competitive election, a handful of votes in just a few states could prove decisive.