November PFD Topic Analysis

Our analysis of the November PFD topic, Electoral College, is below the fold!

The Electoral College has been subject to intense criticism from its inception. The controversy reached an apex during the 2000 presidential election, when Al Gore earned 500,000 more total votes than George W. Bush but lost the Electoral College 271-266 and subsequently the election. Despite the outcry, the issue of the Electoral College was lost in the media buzz surrounding the recount. Today, debaters get to renew this exciting constitutional debate.

Why should you be excited to debate this topic? Arrington and Brenner, associate professors at UNC-Charlotte, make the case:

In many ways the presidency is the center of the American political process … The media coverage of the office is massive; greater by several times than the attention paid to the Supreme Court, the Congress, or the bureaucracy. The president is clearly dominant in making foreign policy and rivals the Congress for power in domestic matters … If the presidency is central to our political system, the method of filling the office must surely be a central concern of those who wish to understand American politics.[1]

This paper will be divided into five parts: History and Background, the Pro, the Con, a Conclusion and strategic advice and finally, Future Reading.

History and Background

During the 1787 Convention, the issue of selecting the president dominated the debate. While allowing the Legislature to vote was a popular option, it offended the notion of independence among the branches.[2] It also meant that presidents would be more focused on keeping legislators happy than serving the people. It would also privilege candidates from the most populous states. The Convention wanted to find a balance between population-centered representation (such as the House) and state-centered approaches (such as the Senate).

The compromise solution created a set of electors designated by the state legislatures to elect the president. The size of the Electoral College reflects the numbers of both Houses of Congress (435 House Reps + 100 Senators + 3 D.C. electors = 538 Electors).[3] Today, candidates must earn 270 electoral votes to earn an absolute majority and win the national election. California has the most electoral votes, with 55 of the total 538 possible. Texas, New York and Florida trail with 34, 31 and 27 votes, respectively.

Why does this essay contain a history section? The Electoral College debate isn’t a new one. You will find a wealth of information from older sources, including a large number listed here in our Future Reading section.

The Pro: Arguing Against the Electoral College

The pro relies on five major arguments: the Electoral College distorts the popular will of the people, ensures some votes count more than others, locks in two-party dominance, leads to regional pandering and opens the election to the potential of bribery and other mischief.

1. The Electoral College fails to reflect the popular will of the people

The most common argument leveled against the Electoral College is that it artificially and arbitrarily distorts the popular will of the American people. If 50 million Americans want one candidate and 49 million want another, the basic logic of equality in Western democracy suggests the 50 million should have it.

Fred Thompson, a former GOP presidential nominee and president of Popular Vote, analogizes it to a homecoming or class president vote. It would be silly to say that a candidate won 75% of the student vote but lost the election because they lost the majority of the Freshman, Sophomore and Junior classes.

Why does this matter? Political scientists cite two large concerns: democracy and legitimacy. Theodore Arrington, cited previously, argues that “the Electoral College is undemocratic because it can, and has, thwarted the expressed will of the people” (Arrington).[4] The democratic implications of the Electoral College will be discussed in just a moment. The second reasonable concern is that if the President doesn’t receive the most votes of the people then “the new president will face questions about his legitimacy” (UMKC Law).[5]

2.  Some votes count more than others

This concern is brought to light in two different ways.

First, voters for the minority party in states dominated by the majority party often feel their votes are irrelevant. Democrats in Wyoming might wonder why they bother, as would Republicans in New York. This occurs because in 49 states electoral votes are “winner-take-all.” For instance, if one candidate earned 33% of the votes in a state with 3 electoral votes, they wouldn’t earn a single Elector. Instead, they would lose all 3, making those 33% of irrelevant when tallying the Electoral College.

Second, voters in small states have a disproportionately large influence on the process. The number of electoral votes per capita is far higher in states with low populations than those states with large populations.[6]

Why does this matter? A basic constitutional principle is “One Person, One Vote.” The legacy of the Three-Fifths compromise and voter suppression has left Americans reasonably concerned that all votes count equally.

3. Two Party system dominance

Proponents of the Electoral College readily admit that it encourages two-party governance. For instance, as Arrington’s opponent Brenner noted in their article; “the only element preventing the entry of a major third-party candidate in-to the presidential race is the Electoral College.”[7]

There are two ways to spin this.

One way is to say that third parties are good, and the Electoral College discourages them. Many argue that the two political parties are now two sides of the same coin, and viable third parties create the possibility of effectively introducing new ideas into the system.

Another way is to say that third parties are bad, but the Electoral College encourages third parties that would hijack the election. While third parties are undesirable, they’re worse in the world of the Electoral College than in the world of a direct vote because candidates need an absolute majority to win. Arrington argues that third party candidates will emerge in particular regional areas to force the large parties to “buy them off.”[8] This would turn the election into a contest to reward third party, regional interests, rather than one to accurately reflect the will of the American people.

4.  Pandering

This concern becomes especially pronounced towards the end of the election cycle.

Simply put, Presidents are discouraged from attending to their supporters because they have to try to win over their doubters in swing states.  Unless you’re a citizen of one of those twelve-fifteen “swing states,” your vote likely won’t have much determination of who wins the Presidency.

Why does this matter? It means that the Electoral College doesn’t effectively “nationalize” elections, as it hopes to. It means that instead of spreading the word nationally, candidates pour millions of dollars into saturated swing states.

5.  Bribery and other mischief

Theoretically, the Electoral College “is subject to the mischief that might be caused by disloyal–or even bribed–electors.”[9]

I would recommend against this argument. I believe the Con argument that a series of new laws mandate that the Electors cast their ballot in favor of the winner of the state popular vote effectively remedies this concern.

Answering the “Makes each region matter” contention by the Con

Arrington argues that while the EC increases regional representation, this may be worse for national interests. In his own words, it “influences the presidential candidates to attend to regional instead of national concerns.”[10]

Answering the “It’s not broken, so don’t fix it” contention by the Con

“At first this unfortunate result seems unlikely. After all, it has failed to occur since 1888. In fact, we simply have been lucky. In any close election the chance of the popular winner being the election loser is great.”[11]

The Con: Arguing in Favor of the Electoral College

The Con relies on five major arguments: the benefits of the “absolute majority” requirement, the potential disaster inherent in a national recount, the importance of state representation in a federalist republic model, the importance of reflecting the will of every state and the ability to craft a popular mandate.

1. Winning the election without winning a majority

This is one of the more complex and interesting arguments in favor of the Electoral College. The argument is that the Electoral College helps to discourage the entry of rogue third parties that don’t receive a majority of American support.

The Electoral College, as noted above, is winner-take-all. It also requires an absolute majority, which means that no candidate can be elected president without receiving at least 270 votes.

In contract, a popular election system would recognize the candidate that received a plurality of votes. This would mean that, in a three party race, a candidate could theoretically win the office while attracting only 34% of the American public. In a four party race, they could earn as little as 26%.[12]

Why does this matter? It could radically reshape the political landscape and make political primaries, such as those that have been fueling the recent GOP debates, and make them irrelevant.

For instance, let’s a say a Democratic candidate was a real lame duck. After one term, they were running for re-election with no real hope of winning. Every GOP candidate would want to line up and take a shot at them. After the primaries were conducted, a popular GOP candidate who didn’t win their party’s nomination could simply run as a third party. This would unfairly dilute the options available to Americans and weaken the importance of existing party structures.

Think this sounds unrealistic? Ask yourself whether Hillary Clinton would have entered the race in 2008 absent the Electoral College. Or try asking yourself whether Rick Perry or Mitt Romney would make an independent bid if they couldn’t win their party’s nomination. Brenner goes back even further, asking whether Bobby Kennedy would’ve won against LBJ following his brother John’s assassination.[13] While perhaps unlikely at the moment, it’s only unlikely because of the existing Electoral system.

2.  Recounts

The most popular example that the Pro will cite is the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Jr. That election ended with a recount in the state of Florida, which was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court.

Imagine if that recount weren’t about 25 Electoral votes. Imagine if the election came down to a 200-300 vote difference, demanding a recall. Instead of being confined to Florida, which was itself a total nightmare, the recount would have to tally EVERY SINGLE VOTE in the ENTIRE country.

Therefore, in the Electoral College, “recounts will usually be confined to a state or two, rather than an across-the-country recount that might be required if we had direct election of the president.”[14] (UMKC)

3. Representative democracy

As noted above, the goal of the Electoral College is to provide adequate representation to states with lower populations and ensure that every state has a voice in electing the President.

Gary Glenn, a presidential professor at Northern Illinois, argues that this is the lens through which we should view what is “democratic.” Our democracy isn’t a true democracy, but a federalist republic, composed of multiple states.

The state is a site of political representation, and the most direct site for local action. The Electoral College ensures that each state’s votes matter, which is a way of ensuring the accurate representation of the will of the people.

4. Every state matters

This is closely related to the point above, but deals less with the theoretical underpinnings of democracy and more with the nature of how elections transpire.

According to UMKC Law, the Election College “encourages more person-to-person campaigning by candidates, as they spend time in both the big cities and smaller cities in battleground states.”[15] Battleground states are battleground states for a reason. They are the closest representation of the national consciousness, which is usually relatively evenly-divided between the candidates. While candidates could certainly give more pump-up speeches to homers, they need to spend time honing their message to independent-minded, moderate voters in swing states to accurately forge a national mandate.

5.  Coalition building

Much like the fifth argument I listed before, I’m not a huge believer in this claim, but it is popular.

The winner-take-all system creates a perception of solidarity and unity. Since national elections are often incredibly divisive, the nation is usually fragile and divided after the election of a new president. The Electoral College “often turns a small percentage margin of victory into one that appears much larger, thus making the victory seem more conclusive and adding to the winner’s perceived legitimacy.[16]

I think this is a weak argument. The nation was divided after Bush v. Gore but it wasn’t on the edge of losing national unity. Most Americans base their sense of political reality on the candidate and how they eventually conduct themselves, not on the margin of victory in the Electoral College. I would wager that 99 out of 100 Americans couldn’t accurately identify the number of Electoral votes (I would have been part of that 99%, even though I don’t “occupy Wall Street”).

Answering the Pro – On balance, the Electoral College is less net bad

When discussing unlikely hypothetical failings of the Electoral College, consider adopting the framing of Deputy Director at the FEC National Clearinghouse on Election Administration William Kimberly; the Electoral College may be bad, but it’s the least bad alternative. “Although there were a few anomalies in its early history, none have occurred in the past century. Proposals to abolish the Electoral College, though frequently put forward, have failed largely because the alternatives to it appear more problematic than is the College itself.”[17]

Answering the Pro argument that the EC is undemocratic

You should define what it means to be “democratic.” As noted above, the U.S. isn’t a democracy; it’s a federalist republic. Glenn argues that the Pro’s argument “relies on the “understanding that “democratic” is what (or who) most voters want, in contrast to the Founders’ view that “democratic” combines as much as possible popular consent with “justice and the common good.”[18]


This is a fascinating debate topic. Personally, I feel that a team that truly understood the ins and outs of the Electoral College would be best served choosing to go Con. The Pro has to propose an alternative model, and there are many problems with direct popular voting that many Pro teams will likely have failed to consider. Simply put: if the 2000 national election didn’t encourage Americans to move away from the Electoral College, nothing will.

Future Reading

Many of you will stumble onto the same Google searches and popular new books. To help relay data on oldies but goodies:

In Favor of Direct Election

Banzhaf, John F. Ill, “One Man, 3.312 Votes: A Mathematical Analysis of the Electoral College,” VillanovaL aw Review (Winter, 1968), 303-46.

Longley, Lawrence D. and Alan G. Braun, The Politics of Electoral College Reform, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975).

Peirce, Neal R., and Lawrence D. Longley, The People’s President (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

Yunker, John H. and Lawrence D. Longley, “The Biases of the Electoral College: Who is Really Advantaged?,” in Perspectives on Presidential Selection, ed. Donald R. Matthews (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1972).

Zeiderstein, Harvey, Direct Election of the President (Lexington, Mass.: Heath-Lexington Books, 1973).

In Favor of the Electoral College

Best, Judith, The Case Against Direct Election of the President: A Defense of the Electoral College (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975).

Bickel, Alexander M., Reform and Continuity: The Electoral College, The Convention, and The Party System (New York: Harper and Row, 1971).

Diamond, Martin, The Electoral College and The American Idea of Democracy (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1977).

Power, Max S., “Logic and Legitimacy: On Understanding the Electoral College Controversy,” in Perspectives on Presidential Selections, ed. Donald R. Matthews (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1972).

Polsby, Nelson W. and Aaron Wildavsky, Presidential Election: Strategies of American Electoral Politics, Sixth Edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984), 246-256.

Sayre, Wallace S. and Judith H. Parris, Voting for President: The Electoral College and the American Political System (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1970).





[1] Arrington, Thedore and Brenner, Saul. “Should the Electoral College be Replaced by the Direct Election of the President? A Debate,” PS, Vol. 17, No. 2, (Spring, 1984), pp. 237-250,

[2] University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. “Exploring Constitutional Conflicts: the Electoral College,”

[3] Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution.

[4] Arrington, above.

[5] UMKC Law, above.

[6] Arrington, above.

[7] Brenner, above.

[8] Arrington, above.

[9] UMKC, above.

[10] Arrington, above.

[11] Arrington, above.

[12] Brenner, above.

[13] Brenner, above.

[14] UMKC Law, above.

[15] UMKC Law, above.

[16] UMKC Law, above.

[17]Kimberling, William C. Deputy Director @ FEC National Clearinghouse on Election Administration. “The Electoral College,”

[18]Glenn, above.

About Lauren Sabino

Lauren Sabino is the Director of Youth Programs at the National Center for Policy Analysis. She currently administrates Debate Central, the largest free online debate resource.
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