In November 2000, newly elected New York Senator Hillary Clinton promised that when she took office in 2001, she would introduce a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College, the 18th-century, state-by-state, winner-take-all system for selecting the president.
She never pursued her promise – a decision that must haunt her today. In this year’s election, she won at least 600,000 more votes than Donald Trump, but lost by a significant margin in the Electoral College.
In addition to 2016, there have been four other times in American history – 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000 – when the candidate who won the Electoral College lost the national popular vote. Each time, a Democratic presidential candidate lost the election due to this system.
For that reason, views on the fairness of the Electoral College are often partisan. Not surprisingly, many Clinton supporters have called for its reform or abolition. But most recent polls indicate that supporters of both parties feel that this 18th-century system of choosing a president should be modified or abolished.
Nonetheless, others continue to make the case for preserving the Electoral College in its current form, usually using one of three arguments. In my course about American elections, we discuss these arguments – and how each has serious flaws.
The evolution of the Electoral College
During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the delegates “distrusted the passions of the people” and particularly distrusted the ability of average voters to choose a president in a national election.
The result was the Electoral College, a system that gave each state a number of electors based on its number of members in Congress. On a date set by Congress, state legislatures would choose a set of electors who would later convene in their respective state capitals to cast votes for president. Because there were no political parties back then, it was assumed that electors would use their best judgment to choose a president.
With the rise of the two-party system, the modern Electoral College continued to evolve. By the 1820s, most states began to pass laws allowing voters, not state legislatures, to choose electors on a winner-take-all basis.
Today, in every state except Nebraska and Maine, whichever candidate wins the most votes in a state wins all the electors from that state, no matter what the margin of victory. Just look at the impact this system had on the 2016 race: Donald Trump won Pennsylvania and Florida by a combined margin of about 200,000 votes to earn 49 electoral votes. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, won Massachusetts by almost a million votes but earned only 11 electoral votes.
The winner-take-all electoral system explains why one candidate can get more votes nationwide while a different candidate wins in the Electoral College. (Some legal scholars have pointed out that the Electoral College was also created to protect southern slaveholder interests that are irrelevant today.)
Despite these issues, many continue to defend the system. Here’s why they’re wrong.
Myth #1: Electors filter the passions of the people
College students first learning about the Electoral College will often defend the system by citing its original purpose: to provide a check on the public in case they make a poor choice for president.
But electors no longer work as independent agents nor as agents of the state legislature. They’re chosen for their party loyalty by party conventions or party leaders.
In presidential elections between 1992 and 2012, over 99 percent of electors kept their pledges to a candidate, and there were only two “faithless electors.” One Gore elector from Washington, D.C. cast a blank ballot in 2000 to protest a lack of congressional representation for District of Columbia residents. And one Kerry elector in Minnesota in 2004 voted for vice presidential candidate John Edwards for both president and vice president – an apparent mistake, since none of Minnesota’s electors admitted to the action afterward.
There have been scattered faithless electors in past elections, but they’ve never influenced the outcome of a presidential election. Since winner-take-all laws began in the 1820s, electors have rarely acted independently or against the wishes of the party that chose them. A majority of states even have laws requiring the partisan electors to keep their pledges when voting.
Yes, some of this year’s Republican electors may not have been big supporters of Donald Trump’s candidacy. But despite the best efforts of some Clinton voters to get them to switch sides, there’s no evidence that some electors may consider voting for someone like Paul Ryan to prevent a Trump majority and throw the election into the U.S. House of Representatives.
Myth #2: Rural areas would get ignored
Since 2000, a popular argument for the electoral college made on conservative websites and talk radio is that without the Electoral College, candidates would spend all their time campaigning in big cities and would ignore low-population areas.
Other than this odd view of democracy, which advocates spending as much campaign time in areas where few people live as in areas where most Americans live, the argument is simply false. The Electoral College causes candidates to spend all their campaign time in cities in 10 or 12 states rather than in 30, 40 or 50 states.
Presidential candidates don’t campaign in rural areas no matter what system is used, simply because there are not a lot of votes to be gained in those areas.
Data from the 2016 campaign indicate that 53 percent of campaign events for Trump, Hillary Clinton, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine in the two months before the November election were in only four states: Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio. During that time, 87 percent of campaign visits by the four candidates were in 12 battleground states, and none of the four candidates ever went to 27 states, which includes almost all of rural America.
Even in the swing states where they do campaign, the candidates focus on urban areas where most voters live. In Pennsylvania, for example, 72 percent of Pennsylvania campaign visits by Clinton and Trump in the final two months of their campaigns were to the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas.
In Michigan, all eight campaign visits by Clinton and Trump in the final two months of their campaigns were to the Detroit and Grand Rapids areas, with neither candidate visiting the rural parts of the state.
The Electoral College does not create a national campaign inclusive of rural areas. In fact, it does just the opposite.
Myth #3: It creates a mandate to lead
Some have advocated continuation of the Electoral College because its winner-take-all nature at the state level causes the media and the public to see many close elections as landslides, thereby giving a stronger mandate to govern for the winning candidate.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan won 51 percent of the national popular vote but 91 percent of the electoral vote, giving the impression of a landslide victory and allowing him to convince Congress to approve parts of his agenda. In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton twice won comfortable majorities in the Electoral College while winning less than half of the national popular vote. (In both years, third party candidate Ross Perot had run.)
In 2016, Trump won by a large margin in the Electoral College, while winning fewer popular votes than Clinton nationwide. Nonetheless, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani announced that Trump’s Electoral College victory gives him a mandate to govern.
Perhaps for incoming presidents, this artificial perception of landslide support is a good thing. It helps them enact their agenda.
But it can also lead to backlash and resentment in the majority or near-majority of the population whose expressed preferences get ignored. Look no farther than the anti-Trump protests that have erupted across the country since Nov. 8.
A way out?
Some advocate that all 50 states adopt Maine and Nebraska’s system of dividing up electoral votes by congressional district. Yet such a system in larger states would likely lead to increased political conflict and even more claims of rigging due to the extreme gerrymandering often used to create the districts.
Abolishing the Electoral College completely would require a constitutional amendment, involving two-thirds approval from both houses of Congress and approval by 38 states – a process very unlikely to happen in today’s partisan environment.
One way to create a national popular vote election for president without amending the Constitution is a plan called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Created by Stanford University computer science professor John Koza, the idea is to award each state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote instead of the winner of the state popular vote. The proposal has received support in 10 states and the District of Columbia. But these states are all strongly Democratic, and there seems to be no support for the change yet among the majority of states controlled by Republicans.
Because Republicans won the two recent presidential elections where the electoral college winner differed from the national popular vote winner, many party supporters have defended the Electoral College as a way to preserve the role of rural (usually Republican) voters in presidential elections.
Rural states do get a slight boost from the two electoral votes awarded to states due to their two Senate seats. But as stated earlier, the Electoral College does not lead to rural areas getting more attention.
And there is no legitimate reason why a rural vote should count more than an urban vote in a 21st-century national election.
Robert Speel, Associate Professor of Political Science, Erie campus, Pennsylvania State University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Updated, March 2, 2017 | We published an updated version of this list, “401 Prompts for Argumentative Writing,” as well as a companion piece, “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing.” We also now have a PDF of these 200 prompts.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter and get five new Student Opinion questions delivered to you every week.
What issues do you care most about? What topics do you find yourself discussing most passionately, whether online, at the dinner table, in the classroom or with your friends?
Our annual Student Editorial Contest invites you to write an evidence-based persuasive piece on an issue that matters to you. To help jump-start your brainstorming, we have gathered a list of 200 writing prompts from our daily Student Opinion feature that invite you to take a stand.
Though you won’t be limited to these topics for the contest, you’ll see that our list touches on every aspect of modern life, from politics to sports, culture, education and technology. We hope the range inspires you, and we hope the fact that each question links to at least one related Times article gives you a starting point for finding evidence.
So skim the list below to think about the topic you’d most like to take on.
For more information, here are links to our spring 2014 editorial-writing contest, a list of winners from that contest and a related lesson plan on argumentative writing.
- Is Cheating Getting Worse?
- Should Students Be Able to Grade Their Teachers?
- Does Your School Hand Out Too Many A’s?
- Should Middle School Students Be Drug Tested?
- Should Reading and Math Be Taught in Gym Class Too?
- How Seriously Should We Take Standardized Tests?
- How Well Do You Think Standardized Tests Measure Your Abilities?
- Do You Spend Too Much Time Preparing for Standardized Tests?
- Should Schools Offer Cash Bonuses for Good Test Scores?
- Should We Rethink How Long Students Spend in High School?
- Do Schools Provide Students With Enough Opportunities to Be Creative?
- What Are You Really Learning at School?
- How Important Is Arts Education?
- Does Gym Help Students Perform Better in All Their Classes?
- Who Should Be Able to See Students’ Records?
- Are Children of Illegal Immigrants Entitled to a Public Education?
- What Is the Right Amount of Group Work in School?
- Is Your School Day Too Short?
- Do You Think a Longer School Calendar Is a Good Idea?
- Should the Dropout Age Be Raised?
- Should Students Be Allowed to Skip Senior Year of High School?
- How Does Your School Deal With Students Who Misbehave?
- Should Schools Be Allowed to Use Corporal Punishment?
- How Big a Problem Is Bullying or Cyberbullying in Your School or Community?
- How Should Schools Address Bullying?
- Should Schools Put Tracking Devices in Students’ ID Cards?
- What Do You Think of Grouping Students by Ability in Schools?
- Do We Need a New Way to Teach Math?
- Does Class Size Matter?
- Should All Students Get Equal Space in a Yearbook?
- Is Prom Worth It?
- How Important Are Parent-Teacher Conferences?
- Should All Children Be Able to Go to Preschool?
- Should Colleges Use Admissions Criteria Other Than SAT Scores and Grades?
- What Criteria Should Be Used in Awarding Scholarships for College?
- Do You Support Affirmative Action?
- Do College Rankings Matter?
- How Necessary Is a College Education?
- Should Engineers Pay Less for College Than English Majors?
- Are the Web Filters at Your School Too Restrictive?
- Does Technology Make Us More Alone?
- Are You Distracted by Technology?
- Do Apps Help You or Just Waste Your Time?
- Do You Spend Too Much Time on Smart Phones Playing ‘Stupid Games’?
- Has Facebook Lost Its Edge?
- Does Facebook Ever Make You Feel Bad?
- Should What You Say on Facebook Be Grounds for Getting Fired?
- Should People Be Allowed to Obscure Their Identities Online?
- What Should the Punishment Be for Acts of Cyberbullying?
- Is Online Learning as Good as Face-to-Face Learning?
- Do Your Teachers Use Technology Well?
- Should Tablet Computers Become the Primary Way Students Learn in Class?
- Can Cellphones Be Educational Tools?
- Should Computer Games Be Used for Classroom Instruction?
- How Young Is Too Young for an iPhone?
- Should Companies Collect Information About You?
- Would You Trade Your Paper Books for Digital Versions?
- Are Digital Photographs Too Plentiful to Be Meaningful?
- Do You Worry We Are Filming Too Much?
- Would You Want a Pair of Google’s Computer Glasses?
- How Would You Feel About a Computer Grading Your Essays?
- What Role Will Robots Play in Our Future?
- How Many Text Messages Are Too Many?
- How Much Do You Trust Online Reviews?
- Why Do We Like to Watch Rich People on TV and in the Movies?
- Do TV Shows Like ‘16 and Pregnant’ Promote or Discourage Teenage Pregnancy?
- Does TV Capture the Diversity of America Yet?
- Is TV Too White?
- Is TV Stronger Than Ever, or Becoming Obsolete?
- Does Reality TV Promote Dangerous Stereotypes?
- What Current Musicians Do You Think Will Stand the Test of Time?
- What Artists or Bands of Today Are Destined for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
- What Musician, Actor or Author Should Be a Superstar, but Hasn’t Quite Made It Yet?
- Will Musical Training Make You More Successful?
- Should Video Games Be Considered a Sport?
- Should Stores Sell Violent Video Games to Minors?
- Can a Video Game Be a Work of Art?
- Do Violent Video Games Make People More Violent in Real Life?
- When Should You Feel Guilty for Killing Zombies?
- What Game Would You Like to Redesign?
- What Were the Best Movies You Saw in the Past Year?
- To What Writer Would You Award a Prize?
- Do You Prefer Your Children’s Book Characters Obedient or Contrary?
- Where Is the Line Between Truth and Fiction?
- Can Graffiti Ever Be Considered Art?
- Do We Need Art in Our Lives?
- What Makes a Good Commercial?
- Why Did a Cheerios Ad Attract So Many Angry Comments Online?
- Does Pop Culture Deserve Serious Study?
- Do Parents Have Different Hopes and Standards for Their Sons Than for Their Daughters?
- Is School Designed More for Girls Than Boys?
- Is There Too Much Pressure on Girls to Have ‘Perfect’ Bodies?
- How Much Pressure Do Boys Face to Have the Perfect Body?
- Do Photoshopped Images Make You Feel Bad About Your Own Looks?
- Is It O.K. for Men and Boys to Comment on Women and Girls on the Street?
- What Should We Do to Fight Sexual Violence Against Young Women?
- How Do You Feel About Rihanna and Chris Brown Getting Back Together?
- Do Fraternities Promote Misogyny?
- Why Aren’t There More Girls in Leadership Roles?
- Why Aren’t More Girls Choosing to Pursue Careers in Math and Science?
- Should Women Be Allowed to Fight on the Front Lines Alongside Men?
- Do You Believe in Equal Rights for Women and Men?
- Are Women Better at Compromising and Collaborating?
- Do Boys Have Less Intense Friendships Than Girls?
- If Football Is So Dangerous to Players, Should We Be Watching It?
- Should Parents Let Their Children Play Football?
- Should College Football Players Get Paid?
- When Do Pranks Cross the Line to Become Bullying?
- Has Baseball Lost Its Cool?
- Are Some Youth Sports Too Intense?
- Is It Offensive for Sports Teams to Use Native American Names and Mascots?
- Where Should Colleges and Sports Teams Draw the Line in Selling Naming Rights?
- Should Colleges Fund Wellness Programs Instead of Sports?
- Is Cheerleading a Sport?
- How Big a Deal Is It That an N.B.A. Player Came Out as Gay?
- Should There Be Stricter Rules About How Coaches Treat Their Players?
- Should Athletes Who Dope Have to Forfeit Their Titles and Medals?
- Should Sports Betting Be Legal Everywhere?
- Should Home-Schoolers Be Allowed to Play Public School Sports?
- Would You Want a Bike Share Program for Your Community?
- What Local Problems Do You Think Your Mayor Should Try to Solve?
- If You Were Governor of Your State, How Would You Spend a Budget Surplus?
- When Is the Use of Military Force Justified?
- What Is More Important: Our Privacy or National Security?
- Should the U.S. Be Spying on Its Friends?
- Do You Trust Your Government?
- What Do You Think of the Police Tactic of Stop-and-Frisk?
- Do Rich People Get Off Easier When They Break the Law?
- Should Rich People Have to Pay More Taxes?
- Do Laws That Ban Offensive Words Make the World a Better Place?
- Is It Principled, or Irresponsible, for Politicians to Threaten a Shutdown?
- Do Leaders Have Moral Obligations?
- Do Great Leaders Have to Be Outgoing?
- How Should We Prevent Future Mass Shootings?
- Should Guns Be Permitted on College Campuses?
- Would You Feel Safer With Armed Guards Patrolling Your School?
- What Is Your Relationship With Guns?
- Do You Support or Oppose the Death Penalty?
- When Should Juvenile Offenders Receive Life Sentences?
- Do We Give Children Too Many Trophies?
- When Do You Become an Adult?
- When Should You Be Able to Buy Cigarettes, Drink Alcohol, Vote, Drive and Fight in Wars?
- Should the Morning-After Pill Be Sold Over the Counter to People Under 17?
- Should Birth Control Pills Be Available to Teenage Girls Without a Prescription?
- Is Modern Culture Ruining Childhood?
- Are Adults Hurting Young Children by Pushing Them to Achieve?
- How, and by Whom, Should Children Be Taught Appropriate Behavior?
- What Can Older People Learn From Your Generation?
- Do ‘Shame and Blame’ Work to Change Teenage Behavior?
- How Should Children Be Taught About Puberty and Sex?
- Is Dating a Thing of the Past?
- How Should Parents Handle a Bad Report Card?
- Should Children Be Allowed to Wear Whatever They Want?
- How Should Educators and Legislators Deal With Minors Who ‘Sext’?
- Do You Think Child Stars Have It Rough?
- Is Smoking Still a Problem Among Teenagers?
- Are Antismoking Ads Effective?
- Is Drinking and Driving Still a Problem for Teenagers?
- Do You Think a Healthier School Lunch Program Is a Lost Cause?
- How Concerned Are You About Where Your Food Comes From?
- Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?
- Do You Prefer Your Tacos ‘Authentic’ or ‘Appropriated’?
- Should the Government Limit the Size of Sugary Drinks?
- Should Marijuana Be Legal?
- Should Students Be Required to Take Drug Tests?
- Do Bystanders Have a Responsibility to Intervene When There is Trouble?
- Should You Care About the Health and Safety of Those Making Your Clothing?
- Can Money Buy You Happiness?
- Does Buying and Accumulating More and More Stuff Make Us Happier?
- Are We Losing the Art of Listening?
- Do People Complain Too Much?
- Can Kindness Become Cool?
- Which Is More Important: Talent or Hard Work?
- How Important Is Keeping Your Cool?
- When Should You Compromise?
- Is Your Generation More Self-Centered Than Earlier Generations?
- Can You Be Good Without God?
- Have Curse Words Become So Common They Have Lost Their Shock Value?
- What Words or Phrases Should Be Retired in 2014?
- What Words or Phrases Do You Think Are Overused?
- Should Couples Live Together Before Marriage?
- How Important Do You Think It Is to Marry Someone With the Same Religion?
- How Long Is It O.K. to Linger in a Cafe or Restaurant?
- Does Keeping a Messy Desk Make People More Creative?
- How Important Is Keeping a Clean House?
- Should Scientists Try to Help People Beat Old Age So We Can Live Longer Lives?
- Given Unlimited Resources, What Scientific or Medical Problem Would You Investigate?
- When Is It O.K. to Replace Human Limbs With Technology?
- Do You Think Life Exists — or Has Ever Existed — Somewhere Besides Earth?
- Should Fertilized Eggs Be Given Legal ‘Personhood’?
- How Concerned Are You About Climate Change?
- Is It Wrong for a Newspaper to Publish a Front-Page Photo of a Man About to Die?
- What Causes Should Philanthropic Groups Finance?
- Should Charities Focus More on America?
- Should the Private Lives of Famous People Be Off Limits?
- Did a Newspaper Act Irresponsibly by Publishing the Addresses of Gun Owners?
- Would You Rather Work From Home or in an Office?
- What Time Should Black Friday Sales Start?
- Do You Shop at Locally Owned Businesses?
- How Much Does Your Neighborhood Define Who You Are?
Technology and Social Media
Arts and Media: TV, Music, Video Games and Literature
Sports and Athletics
Politics and the Legal System
Parenting and Childhood
Health and Nutrition
Personal Character and Morality Questions