A close election: What’s the role of the Electoral College?

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Voters drive up to the only day-of polling location in Provo on Nov. 3. Because the popular vote doesn’t directly determine the election, some question if the Electoral College is the best option for choosing the president. (Lisi Merkley)

Votes continue to be counted and recounted in several states days after polls closed, but despite Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s multi-million vote lead over Republican incumbent President Donald Trump, the country is watching a relatively small handful of votes in swing states.

Why is that? Rather than rely on the popular vote, presidential elections are determined by the Electoral College. 

As of Nov. 12 at 12 p.m. MST, two states — Georgia and North Carolina — remain to be called in a tight election. Biden leads with 290 electoral votes to Trump’s 217. For a winner to emerge, one candidate needs to receive 270 votes, just over half of the 538 available.

Biden has secured more than that number, but Trump continues to say the vote count in swing states was fraudulent and file lawsuits without providing evidence of widespread fraud. He has not conceded the race.

The vote count has been complicated by large amounts of mail-in ballots still being counted. The final count in Georgia was so close that officials there have ordered a statewide recount by hand. Once the votes in each state are certified by the Nov. 20 deadline, the role of the Electoral College comes into play.

While the Electoral College is a historic part of American elections, some question its validity in a changing nation.

History of the Electoral College

Established at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the Electoral College allots a certain number of votes to each state based on their number of Congresspeople. 

BYU political science professor Jeremy Pope said the Electoral College came to be because of three main factors. First, those present at the Constitutional Convention believed average people weren’t informed enough to choose the president. “(The president) was too important to let a mob, subject to the usual tools of demagoguery, select.”

Second, after the founders determined the president would not be elected by popular vote, they had to decide whether or not Congress would be the branch of government to choose. In the end, they determined to keep Congress and the president independent by establishing the Electoral College. 

Third, Pope said the Electoral College was also impacted by the Great Compromise, which determined how many representatives and senators each state would have. The compromise settled a dispute between larger states who felt they deserved more representation in Congress, and smaller states who didn’t want their voice to be lost in a crowd by creating the House of Representatives and the Senate. House seats are awarded based on population, and each state gets two Senate seats. 

The question of representation at the center of the Great Compromise is also found in the Electoral College since states receive as many votes as members in their state’s congressional delegation. California, for example, has 55 electoral votes, and Utah only has 6. The number of residents each one of these votes accounts for is not equal though. In California, each electoral vote represents around 700,000 people, while in Utah a vote represents 530,000 people.

These discrepancies have led some to call for the abolishment of the electoral college. 

Keep or abolish?

Pope said there are pros and cons to the Electoral College. It provides for more geographic diversity and gives states an important role in elections. 

BYU political science student Austin Birrell said the U.S. should keep the Electoral College because it helps balance power. “I know many complain about how Montana voters have more power than California voters. However, if we didn’t have an Electoral College, California and New York City would have tons of power where they are far from the issues in the heart of the country.”

On the flip side, Pope pointed out that a candidate could win the Electoral College but not the popular vote. This has happened only five times throughout history in the 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and, most recently, 2016 presidential elections

“Probably more importantly in my judgment, (the Electoral College) places too great an emphasis on a few key states that are pivotal and have large numbers of Electoral College votes,” Pope said. 

This emphasis was seen during the 2020 race. Both candidates not only spent most of their time campaigning in key states like Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan, but they also spent a lot of time talking about issues that mattered to these states. For example, candidates talked about fracking in the last presidential debate because it’s an issue that might sway voters in Pennsylvania.

BYU student Camille McBride said while some may argue that the Electoral College helps rural areas have a say, it hurts other minorities in more urban areas, like racial minorities and immigrants. 

“I feel that my vote in Utah shouldn’t matter more than the vote of someone in New York or California. Voting for the President needs to equally represent all of the citizens of the U.S. The opportunity for more exact representation is found in the legislative branch and in local government,” McBride said. 

While opinions are split on the efficacy of the Electoral College, Pope doubts it would ever be abolished. 

“Either one side will feel a strong advantage in the Electoral College and will not vote to change it, or it won’t be important to specific election outcomes and so won’t produce much passion for change,” Pope said. “It would take a sea-change in values and perspectives to change those facts.”

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