If I were asked to come up with a more idiotic, unfair, and potentially crisis-inducing way to select a president than our current Electoral College system, it would be a struggle for me. The degree to which the Electoral College is both unfair and dangerous is not fully understood by many Americans, mainly because it is only in the spotlight for a few weeks every four years. Now that the Electoral College has its moment in the sun again, I want to point out just seven of its most troubling issues.
1) Partisan state legislatures can game the rules to guarantee victory - Most states give all their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the most votes in the state, but there is no reason it must be this way. It is completely possible for a state legislature controlled by one party to change the rules for how electoral votes are allocated in order to gain a partisan advantage. The Republican-controlled legislature in Pennsylvania seriously considered doing that this year, and if they had, it would have effectively guaranteed a win for Mitt Romney.
2) A hung Electoral College could produce a President Romney with a Vice President Biden - If no candidate has a majority of the electoral votes, the election is then decided by Congress — but in the most bizarre way possible. Only the president is selected by the House of Representatives, but each states’ delegation gets only one vote. Since there are an even number of states, we could theoretically run into another deadlock, which would result in the VP-elect acting as president until it is resolved. In addition, the vice president would be selected by the Senate. If no candidate got a majority of electoral votes this election, it would likely produce a President Romney with a Vice President Biden.
3) There is a real possibility of a 269-269 tie - Given how important it is for one candidate to win a majority of electoral votes to prevent the decision from going to Congress, you would think we would at least make sure there is an odd number of electoral votes, but once again stupidity prevails. The fact that there is an even number of electoral votes greatly increases the likelihood of the presidency being decided by Congress in a truly insane manner.
4) Rogue electors – Just to make it all more confusing, Americans don’t technically vote for a president. We only vote for electors, and it is ultimately these electors who vote for the president. We assume the electors will vote for the candidate they claim to support, but there is no guarantee they will. Technically, many electors have the legal autonomy to go rogue. They can vote for a different candidate or no candidate. Theoretically, a handful of individuals no one has ever heard of could ignore the vote and decide to throw the outcome however they wanted.
5) All voters are not equal - The electoral college makes a mockery of the idea of one man, one vote. The way electoral votes are distributed, the votes cast by people who just happen to live in lower-population states are worth way more than the votes cast by people who live in high-population states. As a result, a vote in California is worth less than a third of what a vote in Wyoming is. While this was a problem even at its design, the difference in states’ population was dramatically smaller when the Constitution was written.
6) A Huge swath of the country is ignored - Almost all states give all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins a plurality in the state, and most states are safely for one camp or the other. As a result, candidates ignore the majority of states and voters to only focus on a handful of swing states. This completely distorts the focus of the campaign and the issues fought over.
7) The candidate with the most support doesn’t always win - From my perspective, the single worst thing about the electoral college is that all of its insane rules means the candidate with the most support is not always the winner. It is possible to win the electoral vote or win when the decision goes to Congress without getting the most popular votes. Multiple times in American history the candidate with the most support from the electorate didn’t end up as president.
The majority of these issues are not theoretical; most have happened in one form or another over the past two hundred years. It is easy to imagine how if they were to arise again, it would create a real constitutional crisis and a serious issue of legitimacy. At the very least, a split executive resulting from a decisive election would be a practical nightmare.
The fact that we choose to retain a system that is both deeply unfair and could easily produce a serious governing crisis is the height of collective insanity. There is an easy way to solve all of this: just adopt a national popular vote like the other presidential democracies.