With the results of the U.S. presidential election now nearly final, it should be apparent to all observers that Republican candidate Donald Trump garnered the majority of electoral votes — expected to be 306 to 232 in the final count — but lost the popular vote by roughly 60,832,909 to 61,780,905.
As in the election of 2000, the GOP candidate was able to claim victory using the esoteric rules prescribed in the U.S. Constitution that mandates that the Electoral College chooses the president, not the people directly.
Outraged Democrats, beaten a second time in 16 years due to this obscure system, have now begun calls and petitions to overhaul the presidential election method so the nation’s leader is chosen by the people, rather than by representatives.
Populist Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has joined this chorus of voices, in addition to numerous cultural figures such as singer Lady Gaga and progressive filmmaker Michael Moore.
But to overhaul the nation’s method of choosing its president would require an Amendment to the Constitution, something that’s no easy feat to pass. It’s true that it’s been effected in the past — 27 times to be exact.
But monkeying around with the nation’s system of selecting its leader is not the same thing as, say, outlawing alcohol. It would mean altering our inherently American representative democracy; it’s nothing to treat lightly.
However, it’s not just the Democrats who are in favor of changing this key process of voting; some lawmakers on the opposite side of the aisle have also stated their willingness to engage in electoral reform. One of those lawmakers was newly elected President Donald Trump, who in 2012 branded the Electoral College “a disaster for democracy” and called for “a revolution” to end it. (Trump has almost certainly tempered his views since then.)
The reason for the existence of the Electoral College is that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. didn’t trust voters to have enough information on their own or be learned enough to choose a candidate (remember that the educational system of the U.S. at the time of the Constitution’s drafting was very different than what exists today).
Instead, the Constitution’s authors wanted people to choose electors, who were assumed to be trustworthy, educated persons who, in turn, could be counted on to deliberate and make appropriate choices for the president and vice president based on how the majority of voters cast their ballots.
Initially, electors cast their votes based on how the people in their Congressional districts voted. But eventually, a system whereby all the electors in a state voted based on the majority in that state took over, despite the protests of Constitutional signers James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who claimed that this method violated the spirit of the Constitution when it was drafted. The only two states still using the district method today are Maine and Nebraska.
A majority of 270 electoral votes is required for a candidate to become president. If no candidate receives 270 or more votes, the election of the president is decided by the House of Representatives and the election of the vice president is decided by the Senate as per the 12th Amendment of the Constitution.
The electoral system is not perfect; there exists the possibility that members of the Electoral College can “change” their vote to be different than what it is “supposed” to be based on how constituents cast their ballots. That is, even if the constituents in a state or a district chose Donald Trump as a majority, individual electors can cast their votes, for, say, Hillary Clinton. Or, they can simply refrain from voting at all.
If they take either of these actions, they are termed “faithless electors”; they are not following the will of the people. In theory, if enough electors in the Electoral College for 2016 could be persuaded to switch their votes to Clinton, she would become president.
However, this is very unlikely to happen (despite a petition for it currently being circulated online); the number of faithless electors in all past presidential elections in American history is less than 160; in recent years, no more than one or two electors per election cycle have switched their vote or abstained from voting.
Most Constitutional experts are of the opinion that the parts of the Constitution specifying the Electoral College do not need to be reformed; the Founding Fathers did not intend for voters to select the nation’s top leaders directly.
However, in view of modern political strategies, which are based on gerrymandering and presidential candidates campaigning (or not campaigning) in states purely based on the number of their electoral votes, our Founding Fathers’ intentions may not have been able to account for contemporary political campaigns.
The distortive effect of corporate, PAC and Super-PAC money, too, has added a new influence to the presidential race that wasn’t present at the time of our nation’s founding. In view of these factors, it’s quite possible that eliminating the Electoral College in favor of direct voting could result in a fairer participatory democracy.