By Christianna Silva
If at least two Democratic presidential candidates succeed in abolishing what some see as an archaic process, the process that enabled Donald Trump to be elected president in 2016 could be done away with forever.
“I believe we need a constitutional amendment that protects the right to vote for every American citizen and to make sure that vote gets counted,” Warren said at a CNN town hall on Monday, March 18. “We can have national voting, and that means get rid of the Electoral College.”
According to a YouGov poll conducted earlier this week, 48 percent of Americans supported eliminating the Electoral College, which was written into the Constitution over 200 years ago, out of fears that the general population would be too ill-informed to cast a meaningful vote. (At the time, the only form of instant communication available was an in-person conversation; the Founding Fathers did not account for a society that could source information at any hour online.)
To begin with, the Electoral College process can be confusing, and serves as a barrier to voters looking to be heard. “I would not know how to explain [the Electoral College] to someone who isn’t from America,” Jen Flanagan, a 24-year-old from Boston told MTV News over Twitter DM. “Even speaking about it to other Americans, I feel like most people don’t understand how and why the numbers are in place for certain states and what they mean.”
Jen isn’t alone in feeling conflicted about the process; even the president has mixed views about the Electoral College. In 2012, President Trump tweeted that the system is “a disaster for a democracy.” On March 19, 2019, he said it is “far better for the USA” to keep the current standard intact.
It’s understandable, however, why he would have a change of heart: The Electoral College is the system that enabled him to win the 2016 Presidential election by a margin of 304 electoral college votes to Hillary Clinton’s 227, even though she won the popular vote by a margin of 3 million votes. That was the first time many of today’s young voters went to the polls, and they saw that despite Clinton winning the popular vote, Trump’s some 70,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania won him the presidency because they provided him with enough Electoral College votes to win.
What is the Electoral College?
Once upon a time (read: 1776), the Founding Fathers determined that each state would receive a set number of electors, who were reflective of how each state voted in any given general election. The states themselves got to decide how those electors would cast their votes: some use a winner-take-all method, meaning the candidate who receives the most votes in a state would get all of the state’s electors, while other states would divvy up the electoral votes depending on how each of the districts in that state voted. After voters cast their ballots on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, the electoral college would convene on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December to cast the decision-making vote, a process that made space for individual tallying of each vote.
“In the 18th century, [the Electoral College] makes sense because you had to have horses deliver ballots and deliver totals and you don’t have instant communication,” Aaron Ghitelman, the director of communications for HeadCount, a nonpartisan organization that works to register young voters, tells MTV News. “But in a world where we all grew up with instant voting systems on pretty much every reality show — I mean really, we grew up on American Idol where we could vote in seconds — the idea that we wouldn’t be able to do this for president, for so many young people, feels ludicrous.”
How many electors does my state get? And why?
The number of electors is determined by how many senators and representatives each state has, meaning each congressional seat equals one electoral vote — but some congresspeople oversee far more populous districts than their peers. For instance, Wyoming has three electors and is home to around 570,000 people — that’s about 190,000 people per Electoral College vote. California, on the other hand, has 55 electors and about 40 million people, or almost 730,000 people per Electoral College vote.
Supporters of the Electoral College say that getting rid of it would result in “coastal elites,” or people from large cities like Los Angeles and New York City — which typically lean Democratic and are reflective of the voting habits of their states as a whole — would end up getting more attention from candidates. Those same supporters claim that states in the middle of the country — like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — would be ignored, leaving some voters unsure if abolition makes sense for them.
“I think abolishing the Electoral College would make my vote count more, but it wouldn’t mean that I would get candidates campaigning to me,” Ben Jones, 18, told MTV News over Twitter DM.
Because the Electoral College gives additional power to smaller states, presidential candidates tend to campaign primarily in battleground states like Ohio or Florida, knowing the Electoral College votes from reliably blue or red states like New York or Alabama will likely go unchanged (New York has not voted Republican since it helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1984, and the last time Alabama went blue was in 1976). In fact, FairVote found that over 90 percent of election activity in 2016 took place in just 11 battleground states, meaning millions of Americans didn’t receive much attention from candidates.
“I mean, look at the last election and the disparity between the popular vote and the Electoral College winner,” Fortesa Latifi, 25, told MTV News over Twitter DM. “I think that says it all whether every voice is valued.”
Herein lies one of the most hard-to-handle aspects of the Electoral College: When it was established, it gave heavily-populated states more power in electing a president without giving all of those citizens the ability to vote. That legacy still lingers today.
In theory, the founders were attempting to make sure that each state had equal representation, no matter their size — but the founders were also deeply racist. Southern states at the time had huge populations, in part because of the large number of enslaved people — who, along with being counted as three-fifths of a person, were not granted the right to vote. This gave Southern states more pull in the presidential election, despite a large portion of their population being restricted from the ballot box, according to PBS, until the 14th Amendment passed in 1868. And it wasn’t until 1920 and the passage of the 19th Amendment that women were granted the right to vote, even though, before then, they were counted as part of the population.
Is the Electoral College system why my friends feel like their votes “don’t matter”?
One of the biggest issues plaguing every modern election is the chorus of voters, particularly young people, who feel like their vote doesn’t actually “count,” thereby lessening their likelihood for actually voting. That mentality only gives an entire group of voters just one more reason to not show up to the polls, Jen Tolentino, Rock The Vote’s Director of Policy and Civic Tech, told MTV News.
“The Electoral College represents a really clear distinction between whether or not your vote for the president is going to make a difference,” Tolentino told MTV News. But she notes it’s important to look at voting in a holistic manner: “When you look at the reasons why somebody isn’t going to cast to ballot, there are policy barriers like whether or not they have an ID that’s required to cast a ballot; whether or not they’re registered; whether or not they can actually make it to the polls because of transportation and opportunities to vote early,” she adds.
Tolentino said that overcoming the hurdle of whether or not the popular vote is going to impact who becomes president “would make a significant difference in whether or not young people felt like they could actually take the time and participate.”
Ghitelman agrees, adding that young voters feel like they can put in all the effort they want, and at the end of the day still feel defeated because “this kind of byzantine system is what selects the president, not our votes.”
For some people, the effect can feel discouraging, as Jordan “Danny” Dacus, an 18-year-old going to school in New York told MTV News over Twitter DM. “Regardless if I register to vote where I’m studying or my home district (CA-17), my presidential vote won’t really matter, as both California and New York are pretty much guaranteed Democratic in the general election,” she explained.
Is the Electoral College partisan itself?
Though its implementation did not necessarily intend for this, the Electoral College does tend to help Republican voters more than Democratic voters. According to a July report by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, there are 12 million more registered Democrats than Republicans in the 31 states with party registration, which leads some critics to believe that if it was up to the popular vote, Democrats would be in the lead. This hurts young voters, who tend to be more liberal than older voters.
“Voters should be able to elect their president directly,” Manna Zelealem, 20, told MTV News over Twitter DM. “If completely abolishing the Electoral College isn’t feasible, I would advocate for a reformation of the Electoral College to ensure that it gives a voice to overlooked and underrepresented Americans.”
So what’s the solution? Is there an alternative?
The Electoral College was established in Article II of the Constitution, so the most clear way to abolish it would be with a constitutional amendment — a difficult task since constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, an unlikely feat in such a partisan environment.
“I just can’t foresee a full constitutional amendment being passed by two-thirds of the state,” Ghitelman told MTV News. “I think the real thing that matters is how people go about abolishing the Electoral College.”
Another, more creative option that Ghitelman says may be more realistic, would be going through something called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. In this case, each of the states who have committed to the compact would give their electoral votes to whoever won the national popular vote. For instance, in the 2016 election, Trump won the popular vote in Alabama and took home all nine of the state’s electoral votes. However, if Alabama was part of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact before the 2016 election, they would have given all nine electoral votes to Clinton, who won the national popular vote in 2016.
So far, 12 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to sign on to the compact, creating a total of 181 electoral votes: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. But the agreement can’t go into effect until enough states sign on that control at least 270 electoral votes. There are 538 total electoral votes in the U.S., but a candidate only has to win 270 to become president.
“My realistic hope for the Electoral College [is that] the [National Popular Vote Interstate Compact] is ratified by all the states,” Jones told MTV News. “I really don’t see any other way to reform it due to the ratification process being dominated by the states.”
No matter how leaders of the country decide to respond to the Electoral College dilemma, Dillon Dean James, a 24-year-old student at UC Davis, told MTV News that he thinks the confusion around the Electoral College needs to be taken seriously.
“I think when people feel like results are predetermined [and the election has been] already decided for them by the powers that be, they themselves are not empowered and they’re disenfranchised kind of like defacto because they feel like ‘I’m just a cog in the machine — I don’t actually matter,’” James said. “And that’s really bad for democracy. I think that’s extremely alarming. It’s something I think about all the time because I’m like, ‘How are we going to get past this as a country?’”