National popular vote far better than Electoral College system for choosing presidents, Stanford professors say

The Electoral College distorts presidential campaigns, disenfranchises voters and drives partisanship, Stanford scholars say. They suggest constitutional reforms to adopt a single national popular vote where the one-person, one-vote concept applies.

ballot box on an American flag

Stanford political experts say it is time to abolish the Electoral College in favor of a single national popular vote where all votes count equally.

It is time to abolish the Electoral College in favor of a single national popular vote where all votes count equally, Stanford political experts say.

The Electoral College is responsible for disenfranchising, in effect, huge swaths of American voters, said Doug McAdam, a professor of sociology who studies American politics. A single national popular or “constituency” vote would determine the president based on who won the most votes total across the country.

Otherwise, McAdam said, “The great majority of American voters exercise no real political voice in the outcome of presidential elections.”

Under the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College determines who is the U.S. president, based on vote totals in each state. The candidate who receives a majority of electoral votes (270) wins the presidency. Each state’s number of electors is equal to its number of members of Congress (representatives plus senators). Washington, D.C., also has three electors, so the total number of Electoral College members is 538.

According to McAdam, four out of five Americans exercised no real electoral voice in the 2012 presidential election due to the winner-take-all Electoral College system, which made campaigns focus on the handful of “battleground” states that were up for grabs heading into the election.

“If we define ‘battleground’ states as those where the final margin of victory was 5 percent or less, only six of the 50 states qualify. They were Colorado, 4 percent; Florida, 1 percent; North Carolina, 3 percent; Ohio, 2 percent; Pennsylvania, 5 percent; and Virginia, 3 percent,” he said.

McAdam noted that the mean margin of difference in the remaining 44 states was a whopping 19 percent. “Even with such populous states as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio in the mix, the total population of the 2012 battleground states was barely 20 percent of the country’s total,” he said.

Battleground states dominate

McAdam suggests abolishing the Electoral College.

“No principle is more fundamental to the theory of democratic governance than political equality; that is, the idea that every citizen’s voice or views should count as much as anyone else’s,” said McAdam, co-author with Karina Kloos of the 2014 book Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.

The current system violates this principle, McAdam said, due to its winner-take-all nature. In a close election, voters in one or more of the battleground states may determine the outcome of the contest, he said.

“What about all those citizens who reside in non-competitive states? Consider the loyal Republican who lives in California or the stalwart Mississippi Democrat? Every four years, voting for them is an exercise in political powerlessness, at least when it comes to the presidential race,” he said.

Eliminating the Electoral College would empower voters, McAdam said, likely driving up voter registration and voting rates while creating a greater focus on issues (and not states) in presidential races.

“No single reform would deliver on this promise more than this one,” McAdam said.

But eliminating the Electoral College would not be easy. An amendment, whether proposed by Congress or a national constitutional convention, must be ratified by either the legislatures of three-fourths (at present 38) of the states or state ratifying conventions in three-fourths of the states. Still, 17 such amendments have passed since the Constitution was adopted in 1789, the last being in 1992.

McAdam said that another flaw with the Electoral College occurs when none of the candidates wins 270 electoral votes. Then, the fate of the presidency goes to the U.S. House of Representatives – thus taking it away from individual American voters. This happened in 1876, and given current conditions in the presidential campaigns, could happen in 2016, he said.

National unity a factor

Jack Rakove, a professor of history and of political science, said the Electoral College issue vexed the framers at the 1787 Constitutional Convention down to their final days of debate – and they were not sure how it would work in practice.

“They adopted the Electoral College not because they found it attractive in itself, but simply because it was the least objectionable alternative,” said Rakove, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution.

“The idea of a legislative appointment of the chief executive might have seemed more attractive, but the framers worried that that would make the president a tool of some dominant faction in Congress, and reduce the initiative and independence they wanted him to have,” he added.

Rakove also recommends replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote. He bases his view on the one-person, one-vote concept and the national unity it could offer.

“The electoral weight of the citizen should not vary from one place to another based on the distorting effect of the ‘senatorial bump,'” which refers to the overrepresentation of small states in the Electoral College due to their two Senate-based electors, he said.

Rakove said the last three U.S. presidents have all suffered from attacks on the legitimacy of their election fueled in part by the perception of a nation largely divided into red and blue states.

“If we think of the electoral map as a tableau of national division, we form a disparaging view of the victor’s presidential authority right from the outset,” he said.

However, if the winning candidate was perceived to be the victor of a truly national election, partisanship might decrease, Rakove said.

The way to begin the reform process is by establishing a prestigious national commission capable of recommending constitutional change, he said.

The art of compromise

David W. Brady, a political scientist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, said that a candidate can win the Electoral College – and as a result, the presidency – without winning the popular vote. It’s happened four times.

Brady pointed to Andrew Jackson and Samuel Tilden, who won the popular vote in 1824 and 1876, respectively, only to see their opponents walk into the White House. This also happened to Grover Cleveland in 1888; he won the popular vote but lost on electoral votes to Benjamin Harrison. And in 2000, George Bush prevailed similarly over Al Gore.

The origins of the Electoral College, Brady said, date back to the Constitutional Convention, when the big states put forward a plan favoring them and the smaller states countered with their own plan.

“The resulting compromise gave us the malapportioned Senate and the Electoral College, where a state gets the number of representatives plus the two senators,” Brady said.

Media Contacts

Doug McAdam, Sociology: (650) 723-9401,
Jack Rakove, History: (650) 723-4514,
David Brady: Political Science: (650) 723-9702,
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,