As a nation, we have come to embrace “one person, one vote” as a fundamental democratic principle, yet the allocation of electoral votes to the states violates that principle.
Do Away With the Electoral College
Alexander Keyssar is the Stirling professor of history and social policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the author of "The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States."
Updated July 8, 2012, 10:01 PM
In a presidential election season, it seems obvious (yet again) that we should rewrite parts of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution — so that we can dispense with the Electoral College and hold a national popular vote to choose our chief executive.
Indeed, if we were drafting a constitution today, few people would even consider a presidential electoral system like the Electoral College. (Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, in the mid-19th century, characterized it as “artificial, cumbrous, radically defective and unrepublican.”) The concerns that prompted the Founding Fathers to adopt this system — a distrust of popular elections, worry that the people would be unfamiliar with national candidates, a desire to reinforce the great constitutional compromises between large states and small states, slave states and free states — have lost much of their salience since 1787.
Moreover, we have learned a lot in the last 225 years about shortcomings in the framers’ design: the person who wins the most votes doesn’t necessarily become president; the adoption of “winner take all” rules (permitted but not mandated by the Constitution) produces election campaigns that ignore most of the country and contribute to low turnout; the legislature of any state can decide to choose electors by itself and decline to hold an election at all; and the complex procedure for dealing with an election in which no candidate wins a clear majority of the electoral vote is fraught with peril. As a nation, we have come to embrace “one person, one vote” as a fundamental democratic principle, yet the allocation of electoral votes to the states violates that principle. It is hardly an accident that no other country in the world has imitated our Electoral College.
If we were writing or revising the constitution now, we would almost certainly adopt a rather simple method of choosing our presidents: a national popular vote, followed by a run-off if no candidate wins a majority. We applaud when we witness such systems operating elsewhere in the world. Perhaps we should try one here.