A majority of Americans would be open to changing the way U.S. Presidents are selected.
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults (65 percent) say the U.S. should abandon the Electoral College and elect presidents via the popular vote, according to a new survey from Pew Research.
There are sharp differences between political parties on this subject, with 82 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents favoring a popular vote system, compared to 47 percent of Republicans who agree.
However, as Pew notes, “GOP support for moving to a popular vote is the highest it’s been in recent years,” up from just 27 percent in the days after the 2016 election.
Attitudes about the role the Electoral College plays in U.S. politics have shifted, overlapping with a period where civic education has declined and when politicians and activists have sowed discontent over this unique feature of America’s constitutional republic.
In two of the last six presidential elections, the candidate who won the popular vote ended up losing the election — Al Gore received more votes nationally than George W. Bush in 2000; and in 2016, Hillary Clinton received more votes nationally than former President Donald Trump.
But, the potential disconnect between electoral and popular vote outcomes is a feature, rather than a bug, of the U.S. system.
“The Electoral College is a very carefully considered structure the Framers of the Constitution set up to balance the competing interests of large and small states. It prevents candidates from wining an election by focusing only on high-population urban centers (the big cities), ignoring smaller states and the more rural areas of the country – the places that progressives and media elites consider flyover country,” explains Hans von Spakovsky, Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“The College forces candidates to seek the support of a larger cross-section of the American electorate – to win a series of regional elections,” he continued. “The Framers’ fears of a ‘tyranny of the majority’ is still very relevant today. One can see its importance in the fact that despite Hillary Clinton’s national popular vote total, she won only about a sixth of the counties nationwide, with her support limited mostly to urban areas on both coasts.”
Other experts, however, contest the idea that the Electoral College was created to protect the interests of sparsely populated states.
“I think that this notion that it was done to preserve the power of small states is largely historically erroneous,” Alex Keyssar, historian and the Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, told Timcast News in an interview.
Keyssar says that though smaller states gain a slight advantage from the allocation of electors based on congressional representation, at the nation’s founding, the major offset to satisfy small states was not the allocation of electors, but the contingent electoral system.
Under this system, if no candidate receives a majority of the 538 electoral votes, the president is decided by a special vote of the U.S. House, while the vice-president is decided by a vote of the Senate.
Keyssar, who authored the book Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, stated that high public sentiment against the Electoral College is not a new phenomenon, noting that since the 1940s “a significant majority of the population has always wanted to get rid of the Electoral College and have a national popular vote.”
According to Keyssar, what reversed that sentiment and caused an emergence of the first partisan gap on this issue was that “Republicans started to believe in the late 1980s and 1990s that the Electoral College benefitted them.”
Other scholars have disputed the Republican lock theory, including David W. Abbott, James P. Levine, who said in their book, Wrong Winner: The Coming Debacle in the Electoral College, “the idea that Republican nominees have a lock on electoral college victory is extremely misleading.”
The authors added, “The use of the word ‘lock’ implies that the Republicans gain some special advantage from the electoral college vote-counting arrangements that enhances their chance of winning. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Yet, because many believed the theory, as Keyssar argued, Republican support for moving to a popular vote system saw a decline.
He underscored Republicans’ vacillating support for the Electoral College with a reminder that in 2012, Trump called the Electoral College “a disaster for democracy.”
Despite the long history the Electoral College has had within the U.S., some argue that recent polls showing growing displeasure with this system results from voters who feel abandoned by their elected representatives.
“What survey responses more broadly show and that is evidenced in this specific point about the Electoral College, is that Americans think our current political system is broken and not responsive to their needs,” Carah Ong Whaley, Ph.D, Academic Program Officer at the Center for Politics, told Timcast in a written statement.
“It’s time to think seriously about reforms that will produce more representative and responsive governance,” she added.
Other recent Pew survey data show Americans have deep dissatisfaction with the state of politics.
Among the key findings:
- Only 4 percent of U.S. adults say the political system is working extremely or very well
- About 60 percent express not too much or no confidence in the future of the U.S. political system
- Just 16 percent of the public say they trust the federal government always or most of the time
- 63 percent of Americans say they are dissatisfied with their options for presidential candidates
- 65 percent say they always or often feel exhausted when thinking about politics
- When asked to sum up their feelings about politics, 79 percent use negative or critical words, with “divisive” and “corrupt” being used most frequently
“The key is to find balance in a new system that would allow for greater access, voice and participation in political and decision making processes,” Whaley said. “To this end, some alternatives that would move our political system in that direction include adopting ranked choice voting and multi-member districts.”
Supporters of maintaining the Electoral College often argue that the growing numbers of people seeking to abolish it reflect the lack of education about American history.
It’s a great thing that we are a constitutional, representative, republic and NOT a democracy.
It appears 65% of Americans are ignorant of the form of government that protects our existence. This poll is likely more of a representation of the failed public school system. https://t.co/8vaXULJyNL
— Katrina Pierson (@KatrinaPierson) September 26, 2023
Many who want to abolish the Electoral College often state that it is an inherently unfair system.
— San (@sanosbo1) September 2, 2020
In 2007, a movement was launched to create a National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement between states that would circumvent the constitution and allow states to award their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote.
As of September 2023, 16 states and the District of Columbia have signed onto the agreement.
Recent legislation passed by Michigan could make it the 17th state to join the compact.