​The Electoral College: Who Benefits, Who Does Not

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

Andrea Hatcher began her Academy for Lifelong Learning lecture on the Electoral College with a brief history lesson. The U.S. constitutional framers arrived at the method for selecting a president after “contentious” debate, Hatcher said, and “none thought well of it.” Hatcher’s University classes focus on American political institutions. Before examining the Electoral College’s shortcomings, Hatcher explained how the U.S. presidential selection process works.

“The November election, is not for the presidential candidates, but for the electors,” Hatcher said. The constitution allocates each state a number of electors equal to their congressional representation, and these electors vote by ballot to select the president. In most states, all the electors are pledged to vote for the winner of the popular vote. In Maine and Nebraska, the electors are pledged to vote according to the popular vote of the district they represent, except for two at-large electors pledged to vote for the state popular-vote winner.

Hatcher pointed out the constitution does not bind electors to vote according to their pledge, but she stressed other problems with the Electoral College system were far more worrisome.

Why does it matter that the Electoral College vote, and not the popular vote, determine who becomes president?

For one, the Electoral College results in “distorted campaign strategies,” Hatcher said. In the 2016 election, the candidates never visited half the states. Candidates focus on the states with a large number of Electoral College votes and the issues important to those states, Hatcher said.

Hatcher also cited the Electoral College’s “potential to magnify fraud.” Hatcher gave the hypothetical example of the 2000 election where Florida’s Electoral College votes determined the winner and the state’s popular vote was extremely close. “Anyone wishing to employ fraudulent means to alter the outcome in the state, and thus the nation, would have had to steal only 538 votes” to determine how all Florida’s Electoral College votes were cast, Hatcher said. In a direct election scenario, it would have been necessary to “manipulate” 540,000 votes. “That was the national popular vote margin between Bush and Gore.”

Summing up, Hatcher called the Electoral College “a distorted counting device.” “In the next election a candidate could win the popular vote by 5 million votes or more and still lose the Electoral College.”

“For us to call ourselves a democracy, the will of the people has to matter, and perhaps matter more than a 200-year-old counting mechanism.”

Addressing possible reforms, Hatcher said states could choose to opt for a districts plan like Maine and New Hampshire for apportioning Electoral College votes. She expressed concern that the system had the potential to further increase gerrymandering and redistricting to influence elections.

Responding to a question from the audience, she said reducing gerrymandering by federally mandating how districting occurred was unlikely since “both major political parties benefit from the system as it’s currently constructed.”

If the United States changed to a direct election system, “presidential candidates would need to clarify their stance and take their case to the entire nation,” Hatcher said. She acknowledged changing to direct election “would be a hard pull as it would require a constitutional amendment. The individuals in charge of making that change are the ones who currently benefit from the system as it exists.”