The Electoral College Works

November 9, 2018 Updated: November 11, 2018


The off-year elections have ended, and the long campaign for the presidency will now begin in earnest for those hopefuls who have not already begun laying the groundwork for their campaigns. That election will be conducted along the same basic constitutional ground rules that have successfully given us 45 presidents over more than 200 years.

Despite its excellent track record of producing presidents and contributing to a stable and balanced constitutional order, the Electoral College is again under assault.

In an article in The Atlantic, for instance, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said that American democracy was in crisis and that she “passionately” believes it is time to abolish the Electoral College.

Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently said in a tweet that it was beyond time to abolish the Electoral College, calling it “a shadow of slavery’s power on America today that undermines our nation as a democratic republic.”

Though the institution has been challenged for nearly as long as America has existed, the opponents have gotten particularly strident since Donald Trump was elected two years ago.

Some of the renewed fervor can be traced to the resistance to Trump’s presidency. But we should be clear that animus toward the Electoral College has long preceded our current political troubles and will outlast them. Indeed, hundreds of constitutional amendments have been offered over the years that would abolish the institution. Why?


Though some, such as Ocasio-Cortez, have taken to painting the institution with the indelible stain of racism, there is no good case to be made on that front. More seriously, opponents argue that the Electoral College is “undemocratic” or, put in other ways, it violates the sacred value of one-man-one-vote, or is “unfair,” “disenfranchises voters,” or violates the principle of “democratic equality.”

It’s easy to see why they argue this way. After all, we think of ourselves as a “democracy” and have been taught that democracy requires all votes to count equally. At the surface level, there seems to be something wrong with a system where the candidate who got fewer votes won the election. But let’s look just beneath that surface.

Did Clinton win 2.8 million more votes than Trump in 2016 but lose the presidency? Yes. Is that “undemocratic?” No. The Electoral College is simply a way of counting votes by state and doing so democratically. In each and every state that Trump won, he got more votes than did Clinton. By winning the democratic election in the state, he was given that state’s electoral votes. That is a democratic election by any possible definition.

Those who argue that only one national undifferentiated election across the nation can count as being “democratic” are just not thinking constitutionally. Our constitutional system of federalism ensures the states are the locus of elections, and there is no single national constituency enshrined in the Constitution to elect anyone. There is also no national bureaucracy for vote counting to come up with an official and legal national vote total that could be the basis for an election. And, there has never actually been a presidential campaign run with the goal of winning more votes nationally than the other candidate.

Would Clinton have won more votes than Trump if the race was actually constructed to win a national popular vote? We can’t say either way, as all the decisions of both campaigns in 2016 were geared toward winning 270 electoral votes, not a national plurality. Since both campaigns spent more time in places like Grand Rapids, Michigan, or Raleigh, North Carolina, than they did in all of California, to argue that the national vote winner was not elected president is senseless.


National democratic equality is the prime value promoted by those who would abolish the Electoral College, and they assume they could get their reform without consequences to other values we might hold dear. But, rather than a small tweak, we should understand the abolition of the Electoral College for the radical change it would mean for American political life.

Those who value diversity, for instance, should remember that Clinton won her national popular vote margin on the basis of massive margins in major U.S. cities—winning more than 1.6 million more votes than Trump in Los Angeles County alone. It is only the Electoral College that gives rural voters any influence at the presidential level.

Those who fear the concentration of power should remember that major urban centers are already home to the three major forces in U.S. politics—money, media, and votes. The slight offset the Electoral College gives smaller states and rural areas is some check on the concentration of urban power that would be obliterated if the Electoral College were dismantled.

Those who value competitive elections should remember how competitive the Electoral College makes our presidential elections—the party in power having changed every time but once that an incumbent was not on the ballot since 1952!

The Electoral College is a democratic way of electing presidents through constitutional math. It works in producing competitive elections that both sides have a chance to win. It provides some influence to small and rural states that otherwise would be ignored because of the concentration of power and people in and around urban centers. And, it works to produce presidents—having produced 45 without a serious constitutional crisis, and most of those haven’t been bad at all. Can those who wish to radically transform our elections promise to do more than that?

Gary L. Gregg is director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville and editor of “Securing Democracy—Why We have an Electoral College.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.