Should We Abolish the Electoral College? Should We Abolish the Electoral College?

Virginia Tech professor outlines the process and who’s involved.

BLACKSBURG- Earlier this month, when you filled the bubble for either Joe Biden or Donald Trump, you weren’t actually choosing between two men. You voted for one of two slates of 13 electors. And on Dec. 14, a group of 13 Democrats will report to Richmond on behalf of the Commonwealth to officially elect Joe Biden.

“Not everybody is as aware as we should be that we don’t have a direct vote for President,” said Karen Hult. Hult is a professor of political science at Virginia Tech, and knows she could blow people away with this little piece of trivia.

Hult called the Electoral College “arcane,” but it’s mandated by our Constitution. The United States’ founding document established the Electoral College as the method to elect presidents. Each state receives a number of electors equal to its representation in Congress. Virginia has two senators and sends 11 members to the U.S. House of Representatives. Thus, it has 13 electors. 

State political parties choose their electors. Both the Democratic and Republican Party chose their 13 earlier this year, Hult said, but only half get to make the trip to the state capitol. Virginia allocates all its electoral votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote. 

Hult said when the electors arrive in the capitol per Constitutional instruction, a celebration commences. “It’s a big deal for people to be selected. The parties, when they convene, make it a big event, because the party in effect did win the state election,” she said. We know, for instance, that a luncheon will be held. But who exactly will be sitting around the table is a mystery. Typically, electors are anonymous to the public. 

“It’s not meant to be a secret,” Hult said. “People just aren’t interested.”

Eyes on Electors 

Hult said people tend to forget about the Electoral College entirely for the four years between elections. This year, however, it’s garnered heightened scrutiny. President Trump, who lost the national popular vote by nearly 4% and the Electoral College by more than 70 votes, has nonetheless floated the theory that he could overturn the result. 

Multiple instances of the popular vote winner failing to secure the presidency degraded some folks’ trust in the Electoral College. In 2000, Democratic nominee Al Gore received half a million more votes than Republican George W. Bush. However, the margin in Florida was very slim, with Bush ultimately claiming its 29 electoral votes. In 2016, President Donald Trump lost the popular vote by a staggering 2.8 million, but still won in the Electoral College.

In the wake of his 2020 defeat, the President has suggested that so-called “faithless electors” from various swing states could cast their vote for him, rather than the victor Joe Biden. Political hobbyists worry this could impact Biden’s election, but Hult said that’s very unlikely.

“There are efforts in some states, especially those with Republican legislatures, to either appoint new electors or to void the current electors,” Hult explained. “In virtually all cases, that effort is going nowhere.” Furthermore, she said, any claims made of election results being illegitimate are baseless. “I’ve seen no evidence of systematic wrongdoing or mistakes.”

Electors Historically Loyal

The Virginia Code requires electors to cast their vote for the popular vote winner. Five states already issue penalties for electors that neglect that duty, and Virginia could in the future. The Supreme Court upheld their right to do so after a challenge of $1,000 penalties for faithless electors in Washington. 

In any case, Hult said, rebellious electors are very unusual. In U.S. history, records show only 165 “faithless” votes cast, 90 for President and 75 for Vice President. Nearly 70% of those electors switched because the original candidate died. 

The 2016 election saw seven faithless electors, a historic high. It was the first time since 1948 that there was more than one in a cycle. Even then, Hult pointed out, the decision to disregard electoral obligation had no effect on the ultimate result.

From that standpoint, the Electoral College is fairly secure. Nonetheless, there’s been discussion of potentially axing the system. Hult thinks the idea is worth considering. 

A New Way Forward

Each state individually decides how to allocate its electoral votes. Nearly every state has chosen to award all its votes to the winner of its popular vote. However, both Maine and Nebraska do it differently. Both of those states allocate two electoral votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote. The remaining votes (two in Maine; three in Nebraska) go to the winner of each Congressional district. 

Hult said this method is “a little more small-D democratic, especially in big, diverse states like Virginia.”

She cited Southwest Virginia and the Ninth Congressional District as a case-in-point. In the ninth district, President Trump collected more than two-thirds of the popular vote. However, this strong show of support for the incumbent and Republican policies gets virtually erased in the Electoral College. Virginia will give all 13 of its votes to Joe Biden.

Hult said you could make an argument that the congressional district method is a better representation of Virginia’s political will.

“For some people, especially people who were on the losing side, it’s not that your vote was completely ignored. It was at least represented,” she said. 

Another Option?

In the past, Virginia’s General Assembly has also considered joining the National Popular Vote Compact. This would be an agreement between various states to award all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of who wins each individual state.

It’s an attempt to weaken the power of the Electoral College.

Earlier this year, a proposal to join the compact passed through the House of Delegates. The Virginia Senate held it up, however, saying the idea needed further study.

Hult called it “fascinating” that the bill enjoyed even moderate success.

“That Virginia would be involved at all, is interesting—not that it’s such a Southern state, but it’s one of the first. It has a real commitment to tradition,” she said.

Moving forward, she thinks the prospect of such a change is unlikely. Congress would have to approve any such interstate compact.