In Depth

Should the US Electoral College be scrapped?

Democrats lead calls to reform the United States’ complicated and often criticised system for choosing its president

US electoral reform has taken centre stage in the ongoing battle between Donald Trump and his Democratic rivals.

A growing number of Democratic presidential hopefuls have called for the complicated and much criticised Electoral College America, used to pick its president, to be replaced with a fairer voting system.

But what is the Electoral College, how does it work and what could replace it?

What is the Electoral College?

Dating back to the early years of the United States in the early 19th century, the Electoral College is the name given to the 538 “electors” who convene every four years to cast one vote each for president. These people have the final say on who ends up in the White House.

How does it work?

Rather than directly voting for a president, Americans choose the elector who is supporting the candidate the voter wants to win, which means the election is guided by the popular vote but is finalised and validated by the Electoral College vote.

The electors are spread out across the 50 states of the US in ratios based on each state's population. For example, due to its large population, California has 55 votes, the most in the US. The lowest number of votes for any one state is three, which happens in Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington DC and Wyoming.

With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, each state acts on a “winner takes all” basis, whereby whichever party receives the most votes wins all of its Electoral College votes and the state declares for only one candidate.

Are there any problems with the system?

The Electoral College system has faced criticism for being undemocratic and imbalanced. 

It was designed to represent population density across the US, but in 2000 when Al Gore faced off against George W. Bush and again in 2016 when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump went head to head, the candidate who won the popular vote has gone on to lose the overall Electoral College vote, and therefore the race to the White House.

A major change in public opinion came three years ago, when Clinton gained almost three million extra votes than Trump, but the billionaire businessman ended up winning 304 of the 538 available Electoral College votes.

Also, by giving large numbers of Electoral College votes to “swing states” – states with unpredictable voting tendencies –  candidates often have to campaign prolifically in only a handful of places to determine the outcome of an election, leaving voters in other regions feeling isolated and excluded.

Swing states include Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and, most importantly, Florida, which is allocated 29 Electoral College votes and is often considered the most important battleground state.

Vox has described it as “a patchwork Frankenstein’s monster of a system” that “in the best of times merely ensures millions of Americans’ votes are irrelevant to the outcome because they don’t live in competitive states, and in the worst of times could be vulnerable to a major crisis”.

Should it be replaced?

While many agree it is unfit for purpose in a 21st-century democracy, few US lawmakers have dared call for a major overhaul of the system.

Yet that is starting to change. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, both leading Democratic contenders for 2020, have called for a popular vote to replace the complex Electoral College, while two other younger Democratic candidates, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, have also expressed similar approval for voting reform.

Some critics have argued a one-person one-vote system would disadvantage smaller, more rural states.

“In fact, a popular voting system would ensure all citizens’ votes were given equal weight, whether west coast or east, rural or urban,” says The Independent. “There is no suggestion people in cities would wield disproportionate power beyond the fact a vast majority of Americans now live in urban areas.”

So will it be reformed?

Donald Trump took to Twitter this week to launch a tirade against calls to reform the Electoral College system, which delivered him to the White House.

It is far cry from 2012, when Trump branded Barack Obama’s presidential victory a “disaster for democracy” and called for a “revolution” in a series of tweets after mistakenly believing the former president had received fewer votes than his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

The wider problem says Politico is that “Republicans generally oppose a national popular vote, which would both undermine them electorally and violate the Founding Fathers’ desire for the presidency to reflect America’s federalist structure as a union of separate states”.

While a constitutional amendment seems unlikely, given the polarisation of the Senate, there is another route to electoral reform: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

John Avlon for CNN sets out how this might work: “States pass legislation committing their Electoral College delegates to vote for the winner of the national popular vote. So far, 12 states have passed it - most recently Colorado - and the District of Columbia. And it’s gotten support from Republicans as well as Democrats in those states.”

While it is likely to face a legal challenge, Avlon says “the compact wouldn’t kick in until the assembled states hit the requisite 270 electoral votes to deliver the presidency. And so the effort still has got a way to go, but Oregon, Maine and Nevada look like they may sign on next.”

All this means is that unless there is an eager president and willing Congress ready to break with nearly 300 years of tradition, the complicated and controversial method by which American president is chosen looks set to continue.


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