Finally, some opponents of the Electoral College point out, quite correctly, its failure to accurately reflect the national popular will in at least two respects.
The original Constitution also didn't take into account the development of political parties. Electors were to vote for two candidates for president. The man with the highest number of votes that was a majority became president, and the man with the second highest number of votes became vice president. In 1800, however, the Democratic-Republican Party nominated Thomas Jefferson for president and Aaron Burr for vice president, and because there was no separate voting for the two offices, the two men tied in the electoral college. The House of Representatives had to decide the issue. Afterwards, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, changing the system to the one described in , above.
Yes, your vote counts. Some people have complained since 2000 that if the winner of the popular vote doesn't become president, their vote doesn't really count, so why vote at all? But every vote does count; it just counts in a more complicated way. When you vote for president, remember that you're voting in a state election, not a national election. So your vote counts just as much as anyone else's in your state — but it may count more or less than that of someone living in another state!
Recognizing the strong regional interests and loyalties which have played so great a role in American history, proponents argue that the Electoral College system contributes to the cohesiveness of the country be requiring a distribution of popular support to be elected president, without such a mechanism, they point out, president would be selected either through the domination of one populous region over the others or through the domination of large metropolitan areas over the rural ones. Indeed, it is principally because of the Electoral College that presidential nominees are inclined to select vice presidential running mates from a region other than their own. For as things stand now, no one region contains the absolute majority (270) of electoral votes required to elect a president. Thus, there is an incentive for presidential candidates to pull together coalitions of States and regions rather than to exacerbate regional differences. Such a unifying mechanism seems especially prudent in view of the severe regional problems that have typically plagued geographically large nations such as China, India, the Soviet Union, and even, in its time, the Roman Empire.
This unifying mechanism does not, however, come without a small price. And the price is that in very close popular elections, it is possible that the candidate who wins a slight majority of popular votes may not be the one elected president - depending (as in 1888) on whether his popularity is concentrated in a few States or whether it is more evenly distributed across the States. Yet this is less of a problem than it seems since, as a practical matter, the popular difference between the two candidates would likely be so small that either candidate could govern effectively.
Proponents thus believe that the practical value of requiring a distribution of popular support outweighs whatever sentimental value may attach to obtaining a bare majority of popular support. Indeed, they point out that the Electoral College system is designed to work in a rational series of defaults: if, in the first instance, a candidate receives a substantial majority of the popular vote, then that candidate is virtually certain to win enough electoral votes to be elected president; in the event that the popular vote is extremely close, then the election defaults to that candidate with the best distribution of popular votes (as evidenced by obtaining the absolute majority of electoral votes); in the event the country is so divided that no one obtains an absolute majority of electoral votes, then the choice of president defaults to the States in the U.S. House of Representatives. One way or another, then, the winning candidate must demonstrate both a sufficient popular support to govern as well as a sufficient distribution of that support to govern.
Proponents also point out that, far from diminishing minority interests by depressing voter participation, the Electoral College actually enhances the status of minority groups. This is so because the voters of even small minorities in a State may make the difference between winning all of that State's electoral votes or none of that State's electoral votes. And since ethnic minority groups in the United States happen to concentrate in those State with the most electoral votes, they assume an importance to presidential candidates well out of proportion to their number. The same principle applies to other special interest groups such as labor unions, farmers, environmentalists, and so forth.
It is because of this "leverage effect" that the presidency, as an institution, tends to be more sensitive to ethnic minority and other special interest groups than does the Congress as an institution. Changing to a direct election of the president would therefore actually damage minority interests since their votes would be overwhelmed by a national popular majority.
As you read, ask yourself whether the outcome in each case was fair — and ask yourself what is really "fair." Should the candidate with the most votes nationwide always become president? Or should we be concerned about the power of a few states to swing a popular vote to a candidate that doesn't really have national support? There's no one right answer, and you'll be asked to explore these issues in more depth later on.
In the section below you'll find some good articles about those elections with arguments about whether the outcome was fair and why the electoral college should or should not be blamed.
George W. Bush wasn't the first candidate to become president despite losing the popular vote, either. It also happened in 1824, 1876, and 1888, and each time, a debate ensued about whether the outcome was fair or right.
Actually, the last president to be elected by a majority of the voters was George H. W. Bush in 1988. In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton won with a — more than any other candidate, but less than half of the total vote — because there were three major candidates. Because the third candidate, H. Ross Perot, failed to win a majority anywhere, he didn't win any electoral votes, and Clinton was able to win a majority of the electoral votes without winning a majority of the popular vote.
As for the second issue of the Electoral College's role in reinforcing a two party system, proponents, as we shall see, find this to be a positive virtue.
Why does the actual weight of your vote vary by state? Remember that every state gets a number of electors that is the total of all of its representatives in Congress, both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. The House of Representatives is divided approximately by population — big states have the most representatives, small states have the fewest — but every state has exactly two senators, regardless of size. That means that while big states have more electors than small states, they don't have as many more as theywould based on population alone.
In response to these arguments, proponents of the Electoral College point out that is was never intended to reflect the national popular will. As for the first issue, that the Electoral College over-represents rural populations, proponents respond that the United State Senate - with two seats per State regardless of its population - over-represents rural populations far more dramatically. But since there have been no serious proposals to abolish the United States Senate on these grounds, why should such an argument be used to abolish the lesser case of the Electoral College? Because the presidency represents the whole country? But so, as an institution, does the United States Senate.
A second way in which the Electoral College fails to accurately reflect the national popular will stems primarily from the winner-take-all mechanism whereby the presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes in the State wins all the Electoral votes of that State. One effect of this mechanism is to make it extremely difficult for third party or independent candidates ever to make much of a showing in the Electoral College. If, for example, a third party or independent candidate were to win the support of even as many as 25% of the voters nationwide, he might still end up with no Electoral College votes at all unless he won a plurality of votes in at least one State. And even if he managed to win a few States, his support elsewhere would not be reflected. By thus failing to accurately reflect the national popular will, the argument goes, the Electoral College reinforces a two party system, discourages third party or independent candidates, and thereby tends to restrict choices available to the electorate.
As everyone learned or was reminded of in the election of 2000, the Constitution doesn't say that the candidate with the most popular support has any claim on the Presidency. It says that the candidate with the most electoral votes will become president. So George W. Bush won the election fair and square, by the rules set forth in the Constitution.