By Ben Williams
Phoenix—Democracy in America is a reliable constant.
Every year, citizens vote in local and state elections. In even years, they also vote in federal elections. Some of these elections are for at-large offices, such as governors and city council seats. Others are for districted elections, including state legislators and members of Congress.
However, one election stands out: presidential elections via the Electoral College.
In Federalist No. 68, Alexander Hamilton laid out the arguments for adopting an Electoral College. He argued that having the people select the individuals who vote for president would “afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder.” He further noted that restricting the votes for president to a small circle of electors would create structural obstacles to “cabal, intrigue, and corruption.” But do those arguments hold true more than 200 years later?
A panel during last week's NCSL Capitol Forum discussed the merits of keeping the Electoral College versus replacing it with a national popular vote.
Senator Christopher Pearson (Progressive/Democrat, Vt.) noted that Article II of the Constitution empowers each state to direct its electors how to vote. Thus, if enough states pass laws granting their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner, the United States could effectively adopt a national popular vote without abolishing the Electoral College. He argued that this change was important because the current system emphasizes the political power of voters in swing states to the detriment of voters elsewhere.
Trent England, of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, advocated for continued use of the current system. He said that in practice, the Electoral College forces presidential candidates to consider a wider variety of opinions than they would if they ran a single nationwide campaign. He also argued that because winning the Electoral College prevents each party from trying to win by appealing solely to its base, it moderates our political discourse.
These arguments will continue to play out in states across the nation.
Currently, 16 states totaling 196 electors have signed on to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Under the terms of the compact, it only goes into effect once enough states have adopted it to total at least 270 electoral votes—a majority in the Electoral College. Over the coming months, presidential candidates will continue to focus their attention on the so-called “swing states.” Whether that continues in 2024 and beyond is a decision that rests with state legislatures.
Ben Williams is a policy specialist in NCSL's Elections and Redistricting Program.