When Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, he became the fourth president in American history — and the second since 2000 — to win a presidential election despite losing the popular vote. Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes nationwide. But in the Electoral College — which ultimately decides who wins the presidency — Mr. Trump received 306 votes to Clinton’s 232. In 2020, despite Joe Biden‘s commanding 7 million vote lead in the popular vote, just a few thousand votes in key states could have swung the election for Donald Trump.
Cases like these have fueled efforts to reform the Electoral College or do away with it entirely, but some say it still serves an important purpose.
How did we end up with this system for choosing a president? Stanford University professor of history and political science Jack Rakove says the Founding Fathers had little precedent for the institution they were creating.
“Executive power in the 18th century was either monarchical, king-like, or ministerial, the sense of a British Cabinet,” Rakove explained. “So you had to create an office that was completely new.”
The founders considered three main proposals for electing the president: direct democracy, election by Congress, and an election by state-based electors.
Option 1: Direct democracy
The idea of direct democracy — whoever gets the most votes, wins — was appealing to many of the founders. In states like New York and Massachusetts, direct democracy was already being used to elect governors. However, it was unclear how voters of that era would be able to identify qualified national political figures, and some worried that the general population would be too ill-informed to take on the responsibility of choosing the president.
“The problem was what you could do at the state level might not be transferable to the national level,” Rakove said. “The thing that happens from the 1790s on is that the growth of the popular press, and the growth of an evolving political press, where newspapers are committed to particular candidates or particular parties, became a prominent feature of American politics.”
For the founders coming from Southern states, direct democracy would also mean that executive power would likely be dominated by the North because it had a larger voting bloc. At the time of the constitutional convention, nearly 40% of people living in the South were enslaved Black people who were not allowed to vote.
“A big part of the Southern population consisted of African American slaves, who have no political existence whatsoever,” Rakove said. “If you have a truly popular election for a single officer chosen from the whole nation, there would be a big regional disadvantage for the South.”
Option 2: Election by Congress
For Southern states at the time, having Congress choose the president would solve both of their main concerns with direct democracy. Congressional representatives, the country’s political elite, would have no problem identifying qualified national political figures.
And Congress had also already addressed potential Northern dominance with the so-called three-fifths compromise. The compromise stated that 60% of a state’s enslaved population would be counted towards the state’s total population for the purpose of allocating seats in Congress — giving Southern states more political clout.
“That was emboldening and empowering the South,” said Wilfred Codrington III, an associate professor of law at Brooklyn College. “It really disincentivized the desire to get rid of slavery because the more slaves you had, the more political power you had.”
A presidential election by Congress, however, would infringe on the founders’ desire to establish a separation of powers.
“If we have a congressional election and the president is ambitious then the president will become, in their terms, the lackey or the tool, the toady of Congress,” Rakove said.
Option 3: A system of electors
The compromise that was eventually enshrined in the Constitution is a system of state-based electors based roughly on state population. For the founders, this solved a whole array of potential problems: the risk of leaving too much power in the hands of an ill-informed public, Northern dominance of the executive branch, and breaching the separation of powers.
“The upshot is the system having presidential electors became attractive, not because it was attractive in itself, but because it was the least unattractive option,” Rakove said.
The Constitution specifies that each state gets same number of electors as its total number of representatives and senators in Congress, and the founders left it up to the states to determine how to they would choose their electors. All but two states — Maine and Nebraska — have adopted a winner-take-all system that awards all their electoral votes to whichever candidate won the popular vote in the state.
Pros and cons in modern America
Advocates of the Electoral College celebrate its check on the power that large cities would have in a purely popular vote election.
Tara Ross, author of “The Indispensable Electoral College,” says it forces presidential candidates to court the votes of a more diverse electorate across the country.
“We have a system where you have to win simultaneous victories in multiple parts of the country and the only way to get there is to build the biggest coalition you can,” Ross said. “Because of the Electoral College, presidential candidates serve themselves best if they try to appeal to a wide variety of people.”
But in recent years, as discrepancies between electoral votes and the popular vote have become more common, reform efforts have gained momentum. Electoral College reformers and opponents say the system is confusing, outdated and anti-democratic.
Critics note that states with small populations have disproportionately more clout under the current system. And the winner-take-all rules mean a handful of battleground states have an outsized influence on determining the winner, leading presidential candidates to devote much of their campaigning to just a few states.
One leading reform initiative is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which calls on states to agree to allocate their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote. So far, 15 states and Washington, D.C. have signed on — not enough for it to take effect.
Saul Anuzis, a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party who now works with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, says determining the president by who wins the popular vote would be more truly democratic and could help restore public confidence in the system.
“I think unfortunately too many people in this country think their vote doesn’t matter,” Anuzis said. “I think that has a horrible effect on politics in those states that are ignored, as well as public policy.”
Malcolm Kenyatta, a Pennsylvania state legislator who served as a presidential elector in 2020, has seen the system from the inside and thinks it needs to change.
“The Electoral College sets up a system where every vote is not equal. And a vote in one place is more important than a vote somewhere else. That’s unfair,” he said.
Kenyatta believes our democracy will only endure if we work towards improving the institutions it relies on.
“I think we don’t always think about the fact that this thing that we’re doing, it’s an experiment,” he said. “There’s nothing written on some tablet somewhere that says America has to succeed. It happens because every generation recognizes the role we play in ensuring that there’s something to pass on.”