The Abolishment of the Electoral College: How Urban and Rural Politics Form the Debate

About the Author: Lauren Garcia is a first-year law student at American University Washington College of Law. Lauren graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and double majored in government and history. Her interests include administrative law and international law.

 

On January 11, 2021, Senator Cohen introduced a joint resolution proposing a constitutional amendment to abolish the “antiquated” Electoral College.[1] The ratification of this joint resolution has the potential to severely impact the future of presidential elections, as the resolution would allow citizens to directly elect presidential candidates instead of relying on Electors to have the final votes for who wins the presidential race. Although both proponents and opponents of the Electoral College have justifiable policy arguments, it is clear that debate on this issue has developed along rural and urban lines.

In the joint resolution, Cohen, along with 8 co-sponsors, suggested that the American people directly elect the President and Vice President of the United States.[2] Labeling the Electoral College as an “anachronism,”[3] the writers of the resolution suggest that the use of the Electoral College was more appropriate in earlier times of “limited nationwide communication and information sharing.”[4] Now that technological advancements have improved instantaneous communication, the resolution suggests that citizens now have a better chance of gathering information about out-of-state presidential candidates.[5] Further, writers of the resolution argue that the 17th amendment[6] has established “both a precedent and preference for the direct election of citizens’ elected representatives.”[7]

While the future ratification of the resolution is still uncertain, there is no doubt this resolution would severely impact the process of presidential elections and the current Electoral College system. The Electoral College was originally codified in Article II, Section I of the Constitution as a compromise between two choices—electing the President by the popular vote of citizens or by the vote of Congress alone.[8] Each state’s total number of Electors is the sum of the number of U.S. Senators and Representatives from that state.[9] Although the process varies by state, Electors are generally chosen by nominations at state party conventions or by a vote from the respective central party committee.[10]Electors are then expected to cast their presidential vote following their state’s popular vote, although they are not constitutionally bound to do so.[11]

In effect, Electors have the final say on who wins the presidential race, using the state popular votes as guidance for their decision. Accordingly, the ratification of the resolution would strip Electors of their Electoral votes and instead place the final decision of who wins the presidential race in the hands of citizens. Allowing citizens to directly elect the President and Vice President has a variety of positive and negative effects depending on who you ask. It is clear, however, that strong preferences have developed along rural and urban lines.

Proponents of the electoral college point to the usefulness the current system has in safeguarding the voice of rural voters.[12] Because rural areas are less populated, elections by popular vote alone could weigh in favor of highly populated urban areas. “The framers of our constitution . . . created the electoral college to protect the residents of smaller states,” says Ronald Rotunda, a writer for the CATO Institute.[13] “They rejected government by simple majority because plebiscites historically have been the tool of dictatorship, not democracy,” he continues.[14] The concern the Founding Fathers had in creating the electoral college was that candidates elected by the urban populations of America would begin to ignore the needs of rural society given that large cities have more voting power. This concern is further supported by the argument that if the Electoral College were abolished, the same heavily populated urban areas would be the focus of every presidential election since these areas have the largest concentration of voters in one place.[15] In effect, the voice of rural America could be squashed, potentially enabling presidential candidates to ignore the opinions of rural populations.

Opponents of the Electoral College have criticized the fact that all votes are not created equal, as rural votes are seemingly given more weight under our current system.[16] “In an election, the person who gets the most votes should win . . . No one’s vote should count for more based on where they live,” says Brian Schatz, U.S. Senator for Hawaii.[17]In response to this argument, adversaries point out that our government already provides safeguards for rural populations through Congress, as each state elects the same number of Senators regardless of population.[18]  Furthermore, Senator Cohen emphasizes the outdated nature of the electoral college. “The Electoral College is a vestige of the 18th Century when voters didn’t know the candidates who now appear daily on their phones and televisions,” states Cohen.[19] The senator references the context the Electoral College was created in—one in which voters learned about presidential candidates largely through their respective state politicians. Now that voters no longer rely on electors and can instantaneously receive information from television and social media, opponents no longer see the need for this antiquated system.

The Electoral College has been challenged numerous times in recent years.[20] The first version of this joint resolution was introduced in 2016.[21] An updated version was introduced in 2017,[22] and then another in 2019.[23]The 2021 joint resolution serves as further proof that challenges to the Electoral College will not cease any time soon. As long as politicians continue to heavily rely on the urban-rural divide of our society, the Electoral College will continue to cause dispute between the state politicians of city and country populations alike.

 

 

[1] Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States to abolish the electoral college and to provide for the direct election of the President and Vice President of the United States, H.R.J. Res. 14, 117th Cong. § 1 (2021).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] U.S. Const. amend. XVII. (giving citizens the power to directly elect U.S. Senators).

[7] H.R.J. Res. 14, 117th Cong. § 1 (2021).

[8] What is the Electoral College, Nat’l Archives, https://www.archives.gov/electoral-college/about (last visited Mar. 21, 2022).

[9] ​​Electoral College Fast Facts, U.S. House of Rep. Hist., Art & Archives, https://history.house.gov/Institution/Electoral-College/Electoral-College/ (last visited Mar. 21, 2022).

[10] Sec’y of State (AL), The Electoral College: Frequently Asked Questions,https://www.sos.alabama.gov/sites/default/files/election-data/Electoral%20College%20FAQ.pdf.

[11] Electoral College Fast Facts, supra note 9.

[12] See, e.g., Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC), Twitter (Mar. 19, 2019, 10:20 AM), https://twitter.com/LindseyGrahamSC/status/1108010270507626501 (“The desire to abolish the Electoral College is driven by the idea Democrats want rural America to go away politically.”).

[13] Ronald Rotunda, How the Electoral College Works–And Why It Works Well, CATO Inst. (Nov. 13, 2000), https://www.cato.org/commentary/how-electoral-college-works-why-it-works-well.

[14] Id.

[15] John W. York, Opinion: No, the electoral college isn’t ‘electoral affirmative action’  for rural states, L.A. Times, (Oct. 9, 2019, 3:00 AM), https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-10-09/electoral-college-affirmative-action-rural-states.

[16] See, e.g., Dan Glickman, Let us abolish the Electoral College, Aspen Inst. (Oct. 13, 2020), https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/let-us-abolish-the-electoral-college/ (“Even if the Electoral College is abolished, the Senate ensures that rural states have great influence beyond their populations.”).

[17] Schatz, Durbin, Feinstein, Gillibrand Introduce Constitutional Amendment To End Democratic Electoral College, U.S. Sen. for Haw. Brian Schatz (Apr. 2, 2019), https://www.schatz.senate.gov/news/press-releases/schatz-durbin-feinstein-gillibrand-introduce-constitutional-amendment-to-end-undemocratic-electoral-college.

[18] Glickman, Let us abolish the Electoral College, supra note 16.

[19] Congressman Cohen Introduces Resolution To Abolish the Electoral College, Cong. Steve Cohen (January 11, 2021), https://cohen.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/congressman-cohen-introduces-resolution-abolish-electoral-college.

[20] Electoral College Fast Facts, supra note 9.

[21] Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States to abolish the electoral college and to provide for the direct popular election of the President and Vice President of the United States, S.J.Res. 41, 114th Cong. § 1 (2016).

[22] Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States to abolish the electoral college and to provide for the direct election of the President and Vice President of the United States, H.J.Res. 19, 115th Cong. § 1 (2017).

[23] Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States to abolish the electoral college and to provide for the direct election of the President and Vice President of the United States, H.J.Res. 7, 116th Cong. § 1 (2019).

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