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Ask Civics 101: What Would It Take To Get Rid Of The Electoral College?

Today, we’re tackling a big what-if question. A listener wrote in to ask: What is the likelihood that we will get rid of the electoral college system? Is anyone actively working toward that goal?

Read on, or listen to this short episode for the answer.

Do you have a question for the Civics 101 team? Click here to submit it.

We should first establish what it is we’re talking about here.

Rebecca Deen, professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington explains how the Electoral College came to be.

"It is the process by which we formally choose the president," Deen explains, "And the founding fathers had some ambivalence about people, about direct democracy. We know that the way that they thought about the constitution was philosophical and practical. And so from a philosophical perspective, they just weren't all that sure that they wanted everyone in the citizenry to have a direct impact on who would be the president. "

The Electoral College is a system. It’s a buffer between we, the people who vote, and the actual election of a president. It is an intentionally roundabout election process.

"When we go into the voting booth," Deen went on, "we're not actually voting for that person. We're voting for who that person's party have selected as a slate of electors. So the political parties in each state, and sometimes it's in conjunction with the national party or in conjunction with the state legislature."

"They decide how they are going to decide who those electors are. But they're almost always people who have been loyal to the party or it's a reward for faithful service to the party and these people then on in December, they gather in their state, let their state capitals, usually the state legislator, the capitol building, and they they vote."

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If that sounds arbitrary to you, know this: those electors almost always vote for the candidate who their state chose by popular vote. And there are states that have laws that say an elector must cast their vote for the person the state chose. But it is possible to have a faithless elector, someone who makes the unilateral decision to vote for a different candidate because they believe their state chose poorly.

This was part of the point of the College. In the event the uninformed citizens vote for a tyrant, a smart elector can stop that tyrant from actually becoming president. And we have had a handful of faithless electors over history but never enough to actually prevent the winner from winning.

As far as winning itself goes, the number of electors your state gets is based on population. There are 538 total electors, so a really populous state gets a lot of electors, like California, which has 55. But a low-population state like Nebraska gets just three. A candidate needs an absolute majority of those 538 electoral votes to win, making 270 the magic number.

So why do some people want to get rid of this system?

Many say that the Electoral College doesn’t give us an outcome that represents the will of the majority of voters. 

One reason is that voters in low-population states have a mathematical advantage. Their residents' votes count way more than a voter's relative drop in the bucket of California. It also means that you can lose the nationwide popular vote and still win the election. And it means that swing states - states that could vote Democrat or Republican - get the most attention during the campaign, denying voters in other states the chance to see candidates up close.

So let’s talk about that hypothetical question...what is the likelihood we’ll get rid of the electoral college, and is anyone actively working toward that? 

The Electoral College is in the Constitution. So to “get rid” of it? We’d have to have a Constitutional amendment.

Deen explains that process:

"So there are two stages. The proposal stage and the ratification stage. The proposal stage takes two-thirds of state legislatures or conventions called by state legislatures to get a proposal off the ground. Two-thirds is a lot. We call that a supermajority, but it takes three quarters for it to be ratified. So the bar that the founding fathers set for changing the constitution is quite high. So that's why I'm always pretty skeptical about structural reform, especially when it requires a constitutional amendment."

In other words, the chances of actually abolishing the Electoral College are pretty slim. The Constitution does tell us something else about how voting should work in the U.S. - that states are in charge of voting.

"There's an interesting complex - and it's very concrete - that's going on, is that a number of states have come together and they're almost all Democratic Party controlled states," Deen explains, "They've come together and they've said if we can get enough states that would constitute 270 Electoral College votes to agree, then our electors will choose the popular vote," Deen says, "the person who won the popular vote nationally, even if my individual state chose the other candidate."

"So in other words, they're trying to make the Electoral College moot. They're trying to make it inconsequential by saying if we can get enough people who would enough states whose electors would reflect this magic 270, then we pledged that our electors will go with the national popular vote." 

As of the publishing of this story, fifteen states and the District of Columbia have joined this movement, which is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Combined, these states have 196 electoral votes. But the popular vote compact doesn’t go into effect unless that number reaches 270 - the magic number supermajority. So for now, those states are sticking to the Electoral College process.

Ultimately, it’ll be up to your state legislature to decide whether the Electoral College serves us as a nation. Per usual, if you want voting to change or if you want it to stay the same, the answer is to vote.

In the end, you get to decide who’s in charge of elections.

Hannah McCarthy first came to NHPR an intern in 2015, returned as a Fellow the following year and then bounced around as a reporter and producer before landing as co-host of Civics 101. She has reported on everything from the opioid epidemic to State House politics to haunted woods of New Hampshire.

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