Before I go into my actual defense of it, I’ll explain how the Electoral College works.
The amount of electoral votes in each state isn’t entirely based off of population. The states gets its votes from the amount of Representatives and Senators it has. The number of Representatives are determined by the amount of congressional districts there are in the state, and each state has two Senators. California, for example, has 53 Representatives and its 2 Senators, giving the state 55 total electoral votes. In a presidential election, if a candidate gets the most votes, they take all of the electoral votes. This is called the winner-takes-all system.
The Electors that vote in the Electoral College almost always go to the same candidate that their state voted for, but they do not have to follow this rule. Faithless Electors have happened in many elections but have never had an actual impact on the election’s outcome. Most of the time electors that vote for a different candidate than they originally pledged for are only doing so out of protest or to make a political statement. When the electoral count is heavily in favor of one candidate, a rare elector will vote for a personal favorite, fully knowing their one vote will not make a difference in the outcome.
Only five times in history has the winner of the popular vote not won the Electoral College. That means out of 58 presidential elections, only 8.6% of the elections have not gone the same way as the popular vote did. Those elections are 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016. (In 1824 no candidate held a majority of the electoral votes so the election was sent to Congress). In only one of those elections did the loser win 50% of the popular vote.
One of the benefits of the Electoral College is that it avoids the pressure for runoff elections, like the ones we see in Europe. If one of the candidates fail to win a majority of the popular vote, they still have a chance to win a majority of the electoral vote. We saw this happen in 2000, 1996, 1992, 1969, and many other U.S. Presidential Elections.
The Electoral College contributes to the cohesiveness of the nation by making it impossible for a candidate to win unless they have substantial support throughout the nation. This means that a president from a metropolitan area cannot abuse the population of that area for him to win unless he has support from other areas of the country. It also creates a reason for candidates to chose Vice Presidents from other areas to appeal to more voters. The Electoral College forces the candidates to appeal to the entire nation, not just focus on one specific area, and to appeal as a candidate for the entire country.
The Electoral College has long kept political stability in the United States. It emboldens the Two-Party system, making it difficult for any minor party to win enough votes in a state to win the presidency. Even if a minor party candidate were to win enough votes to make sure neither main party candidate won a majority of electoral votes, they would still need a majority of Congress to win. This also forces minor party movements into the two major parties, giving the major parties the ability to stay relevant in the country’s politics. In order for this to happen, the minor parties would have to give up some of their more radical views to appeal to more people. This creates two parties that focus on the center view of the nation, rather than a dozen smaller parties that are radicalized and region-based.
A more direct democratic popular vote could have the opposite effect. It increases the chance for minor, more radicalized parties to form and attempt to stop one candidate from receiving a majority of the votes, forcing a runoff election. Another problem is that you can have dozens of candidates run for an election and the two candidates that win the most votes don’t represent the majority of the nation’s views. These candidates could be extreme radicals, (i.e. fascists or literal Marxists) or just be region based and not have the interests of the entire nation at heart. Voters are already annoyed with candidates that they don’t like, imagine how they would react with candidates that don’t represent their views at all? This would indubitably lead to a more unstable political system and could lead to more radical changes from one administration to the next.
The Electoral College has helped decide a winner in elections where a Third Party, even a small one, has prevented a candidate from winning 50% of the vote. This has happened on 15 different occasions, including the elections of 1948, 1960, 1968, 1992 and 1996. Few people noticed that neither candidate won 50% and even fewer cared. A direct election would not have changed anything unless you were to have a runoff because no candidate won 50% of the vote.
One of the most common criticism of the Electoral College is that the small states have too much say. But here’s the thing, the small states are not the swing states that matter to the candidates. The swing states have been highly populated states where the Republicans and Democrats have similar amounts of support. The smallest swing states are Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire only have a total electoral count of 16, whereas all the other swing states have a total count of 140. Those larger swing states have played larger roles in recent elections than Nevada, Iowa, or New Hampshire have. Since 1988 Republicans have only won New Hampshire once, in the 2,000 election, the same election decided on the large swing state of Florida. Candidates have never been able to rely on one swing state to get them through an election. In 2008 Obama won every swing state and won all but one (North Carolina) in his reelection. In 2016, Trump won seven of the more populous swing states, whereas Clinton only won five of the swing states.
Candidates that win the bigger states, like California and Texas, have a much greater chance at winning the presidency than the candidate that wins the states with “more powerful votes.” While these smaller states may have “more voting power”, it is cancelled out by the fact that they have far less electoral votes than the bigger states, thus making their state weaker in the total outcome of the Electoral College. Bigger states are far more likely to dictate the outcome of an election than any other small state.
One of the most popular replacement ideas for the Electoral college is the proportional popular vote. This is an alternative to the winner-takes-all system, they support it under the auspices that it makes the Electoral College system more equal and that it represents the popular vote better. Supporters of this idea propose a system where the electoral vote are split up the same way that the popular votes of the state are split up. They don’t realize that this system would cause the election to go to Congress where the House of Representatives pick the President and the Senate picks the Vice-President. Under this system at least four of our last seven elections would have gone to congress. Those elections are 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2016. Not only would this system have forced the election unto congress, the winner of the popular vote still can have fewer electoral votes in this method. This would have caused national outcry as Congress isn’t always controlled by the same party that the majority of voters voted for president, and how the House and Senate can be controlled by different parties at the same time. If this system was ours for this past election we very well could have had an administration with people from two different parties at the helm. And you think the Trump administration is bad now?