Most Americans don't want the Electoral College. Why does it prevail?

The US Electoral College has survived seven decades of public disapproval. Is there a path toward a better system?

New York State Electoral College members cast votes at the state capital in Albany, N.Y., on Dec. 16, 1940.

With the US presidential election less than a week away, Americans are doing their best to recall high school civics: Google searches for the term “electoral college” are spiking, as they do before every election.

What people learn might not do much to enliven dimming esteem for the way the United States elects its president.

For nearly seven decades, majorities of Americans have told pollsters that the Electoral College should be replaced. The consensus cuts across party lines: In 2013, the latest poll, 61 percent of Republicans told Gallup they would do away with it, along with 63 percent of independents and 66 percent of Democrats. And in such a highly polarized present, some say that replacing the Electoral College could act as a salve for seemingly unrelated problems.

With animus toward presidents growing since 1992 and peaking with the current candidates, says Jack Rakove, a Stanford University professor of history and political science, a system that comes closer to the ideal of “one person, one vote” might take the edge off of partisan rancor.

“I think we’re going through a crisis of presidential legitimacy,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor. “I happen to think that it would be healthy to the body politic, having one national constituency as opposed to being divided between red and blue states.”

The Electoral College has followed the popular vote in all but two elections in US history, most recently in the year 2000. But critics say the system forces campaigns to pay more attention to battleground states than they’re due, and even changes how government resources are allocated, as National Popular Vote chairman and Stanford University professor John Koza wrote in September in the Hill:

“Battleground states receive 7% more presidentially controlled grants, twice as many disaster declarations, considerably more Superfund and No Child Left Behind exemptions, and numerous other favorable actions from presidents.”

The solution offered is generally one of two varieties: Either stake the presidency on the popular vote, or change the way states allocate their electoral votes, eliminating the winner-take-all system and allowing electors split their votes between candidates. Maine and Nebraska already divvy up their votes, giving two electoral votes to the winner of the statewide vote and another to whichever candidate wins the popular vote in each congressional district (two in Maine, three in Nebraska). And back in 2004, Colorado contemplated a similar change.

“Under Amendment 36, the math would be awarded proportionately: If Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry wins 51 percent of Colorado's popular votes in the coming election, he would get five electoral votes,” wrote the Monitor’s Jeff Kass that year. “If Republican George Bush snags 49 percent, he would be awarded four.”

The reform failed, with critics arguing that it would kill the state’s electoral clout. And in the lead-up to that year’s election, with a Republican in the executive branch, Republicans tended to oppose the reform, illustrating a paradox that has helped keep the Electoral College in place.

Between elections, says Norman Williams, a professor and associate dean at Willamette University’s College of Law in Salem, Ore., who has written about the issue, electoral reforms slip off the agenda for lawmakers and the public. Then, “in the lead-up to elections, people view every potential reform proposal through a partisan lens.”

“The best way would be a constitutional amendment approved by Congress and ratified by the states,” he tells the Monitor, “and it’ll take a bipartisan consensus that the system’s broken.”

The wheels are turning on workarounds, though. Several states are already part of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, in which states pledge to award their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote – that is, once enough states have joined the agreement to make up a majority of electoral votes.

Supporters have reason to hope that such workarounds might eventually culminate in an amendment. Before the passage of the 17th Amendment, which established the popular election of senators, “a whole bunch of states, led by Oregon, had jerry-rigged a system of direct election for senators,” says Akhil Reed Amar, a Yale professor of law and political science who first proposed the idea of the Compact in a 2001 essay.

There’s no reason why presidential election couldn’t operate much like state elections of governors, he tells the Monitor.

“They’re just like mini-presidents in all sorts of ways, and no state has an Electoral College to pick its governor.” 

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