I. Voting Options Considered by the Framers of the Constitution
The Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia from May to September 1787 to write the document that would lay the foundation for the US government. During this time, the framers of the US Constitution spent 22 days debating ways to select the nation’s chief executive, the president of the United States.
Many delegates to the Convention favored having Congress select the president, an idea that was tentatively approved four times but ultimately rejected for fear that the national legislature was more vulnerable to cabal, intrigue, faction or corruption. People wanted to ensure more separation of power between the legislative and executive branches. Some delegates advocated for a nationwide popular vote, but most felt that it would be too difficult for people all over the country to make informed decisions about candidates. Proposals to let state governors or state legislatures directly choose the president were also rejected.
Those at the Constitutional Convention held 30 votes before coming to a compromise with what later became known as the Electoral College, the system that has been in use for all 59 US presidential elections from 1789 through 2020.
II. Summary of Voting Options Available Today
Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution left it to the states to determine how each would appoint its electors (a power that has been upheld by Supreme Court rulings):
“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector…
The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.”
In the 2020 US presidential election, 48 states used the winner-take-all method of allocating electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote (option 1, below in III.), while Maine and Nebraska awarded two electoral votes to the statewide winner and the rest to the winner of each congressional district (option 2, below).
Since the Electoral College is enshrined in the Constitution, abolishing it in favor of a nationwide direct popular vote (option 3, below) would require a constitutional amendment.
However, there are options for altering the Electoral College without needing a constitutional amendment. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is an agreement among states to award their electoral votes to the nationwide popular vote winner (option 4, below). Experts have also suggested proportional plans that would allocate electoral votes based on what percentage of the statewide popular votes a candidate receives. (option 5, below).
In McPherson v. Blacker, 146 U.S. 1 (1892), the Supreme Court noted that the Constitution did not provide for a popular vote to appoint electors, but rather let the state legislatures determine the manner of choosing electors.
In early US history, about half of the state legislatures appointed electors rather than holding popular elections (9 of 15 states in 1792, for example). In theory, any state could change its election rules to have the state legislature appoint electors if the change were made before an election took place. Experts believe that voters would be outraged to lose their ability to vote in presidential elections. This is not a voting method being recommended or considered by anyone, and thus it is not examined in detail below.
III. Pros and Cons of Five Different Voting Options
Below are the pros and cons of the five options for voting for US president.
|Option 1: Winner-Take-All
Electoral votes are allocated in each state based on the winner of the statewide popular vote; this is the method currently used in 48 states (all but Maine and Nebraska) and Washington, DC.
|A. Pros||B. Cons|
|1||The winner-take-all Electoral College system can give the winner legitimacy and a mandate for leadership with a big electoral vote victory even if the popular vote was close. Ronald Reagan, for example, won 51% of the popular vote in 1980 but carried 91% of the electoral votes (489 to 49 over Carter).||The winner-take-all system gives all electoral votes to a candidate whether they won by five votes or 5 million votes, disregarding the idea that every vote counts. It is possible to win the presidency despite losing the popular vote, which happened in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.|
|2||The framers of the Constitution let states decide how to appoint their electors, and after experimenting with different options, all but two states have determined that winner-take-all allocation protects a state’s unified voice in the presidential election.||Presidential campaigns focus on battleground states to increase electoral vote totals, ignoring voters in states that always go to the same party (e.g., California for Democrats or Oklahoma for Republicans).|
|3||The government of the United States was designed to share power among the federal and state governments. The winner-take-all Electoral College promotes that principle of federalism by representing the will of the people at the state level, acknowledging that the 50 states and DC come together to form the United States.||Even when the popular vote outcome is clear on election night, close elections generate recounts, lawsuits, and uncertainty over the results in swing states because of the battle over electoral votes. A delay in the results breeds uncertainty and distrust over the legitimacy of the vote.|
|4||This system ensures that the winner was preferred by a majority of voters across multiple states, protecting the interests of voters in small states from being drowned out by big states.||Every state is guaranteed a minimum of three electoral votes, giving the smallest states a disproportionate impact on the presidential election. See State Elector Power.|
|5||This method is more fair than the district plan used in Maine and Nebraska because it prevents the ruling parties from gerrymandering the state’s congressional districts to gain an advantage in the electoral votes, an argument made by Nebraska State Sen. Julie Slama in her bill proposing the state return to the winner-take-all system.||This system makes it difficult for new political parties or independent candidates to challenge the existing two-party system, which limits the options of voters and entrenches the power of Republicans and Democrats, regardless of how well they serve the people.|
|Option 3: Direct Popular Vote
Replace the Electoral College with a nationwide direct popular vote, which would require a constitutional amendment. Some proposals call for a simple majority vote while others would use a plurality, perhaps at a threshold of 40% of the vote, to determine the winner.
|A. Pros||B. Cons|
|1||Every vote would count toward the election of the president, including voters who currently get overruled by the majority in their states, such as Democrats in Texas or Republicans in New York. This would make the presidential election truly democratic and give all votes equal weight.||The idea of direct popular vote was considered and rejected by the Founding Fathers when writing the US Constitution. Overriding the constitutional presidential election procedure would remove the safeguards put in place, including the ability of members of Congress to challenge the results.|
|2||A nationwide popular vote would result in the people directly electing the president and vice president rather than the current system of people voting for electors who are not bound by federal law to vote as pledged. The winners would take office as soon as the vote was certified because there would be no electors to meet or electoral vote to certify in Congress.||A nationwide popular vote determining the outcome of the presidential election would put all states at risk of voter fraud in other states. Since states run and oversee their own elections, there would be a lack of accountability for the results they submit. Similarly, efforts to disenfranchise voters in some states would impact all voters more when every single vote counts toward the outcome.|
|3||This system would correct the imbalance of state elector power that gives voters in small states more power in the Electoral College due to having fewer people per electoral vote. Candidates would also have an incentive to campaign in all states instead of focusing on a handful of swing states.||A nationwide popular vote could lead to more confusion and demands for recounts, which would be more expensive and complicated to handle in all 50 states, all of which have their own rules. The Electoral College, by contrast, generally requires recounts in only a handful of swing states.|
|4||A popular vote determining the winner would avoid the undesirable outcome of a candidate with fewer popular votes becoming president, which has happened five times in history. There would be no question that the majority of people across the country supported the nationwide popular vote winner. A September 2020 Gallup poll found that 61% of Americans support switching to a popular vote (89% of Democrats, 68% of Independents, and 23% of Republicans are in favor of the idea).||A direct popular vote raises concerns of how to settle elections in which no candidate receives a plurality or majority of the vote. Either an expensive and time-consuming runoff election would be held or the outcome could go to Congress, creating incentives for the cabals, factions, and corruption that the framers of the Constitution sought to avoid.|
|5||The reason why a direct popular vote was rejected by the framers of the Constitution no longer applies. Candidates can now easily travel the country to meet voters, and the framers could never have envisioned the wide range of technology that is now available for voters to learn about the candidates.||Campaigning for the popular vote would require more ads, staff, and travel. That would bring even more special interest money into already overinflated campaign spending, which exceeded $6.6 billion in the 2020 presidential election. Big donors would gain even more influence in politics.|
(Note: Electoral votes could be awarded as fractions in a proportional system, but this would eliminate the office of the elector that is enshrined in the Constitution. Less research is available on the concept, so the pros and cons of fractional proportion are not explored here.)
- Megan Brenan, “61% of Americans Support Abolishing Electoral College,” news.gallup.com, Sep. 24, 2020
- Change The Rules, “There are Layers of Rules that Limit “Who Matters” to Politicians,” changetherules.org (accessed Jan. 21, 2021)
- Congressional Research Service, “Contingent Election of the President and Vice President by Congress: Perspectives and Contemporary Analysis,” fas.org, Oct. 6, 2020
- Congressional Research Service, “The Electoral College: How It Works in Contemporary Presidential Elections,” crsreports.congress.gov, May 15, 2017
- Claire Daviss and Rob Richie, “Fuzzy Math: Wrong Way Reforms for Allocating ElectoralVotes,” fairvote.org, Jan. 2015
- Drew DeSilver, “Biden’s victory another example of how Electoral College wins are bigger than popular vote ones,” pewresearch.org, Dec. 11, 2020
- Chris Dunker, “Nebraska senator proposes voter ID, moving state back to winner-take-all,” journalstar.com, Jan. 7, 2021
- George Edwards III, Why the electoral college is bad for America, 2019
- Megan Feeney, “Nebraska’s 2nd District Voters Feel The Tension Of An Electoral College Vote Up For Grabs,” netnebraska.org, Oct. 29, 2020
- Sam Hirsch, “Awarding Presidential Electors by Congressional District: Wrong for California, Wrong for the Nation,” Michigan Law Review First Impressions, 2008
- Curtis Gans, “Why National Popular Vote Is a Bad Idea,” huffpost.com, Mar. 7, 2012
- The Heritage Foundation, “The Essential Electoral College,” heritage.org, Sep. 2020
- Lawrence Lessig and Jason Harrow, “State Legislatures Can’t Ignore the Popular Vote in Appointing Electors,” lawfareblog.com, Nov. 6, 2020
- Gianni Mascioli, Caroline Kane, Meira Nagel, Michael McGarry, Ezra Medina, Jenny Brejt, Siobhan D’Angelo, “Presidents Must Be Elected Popularly: Examining Proposals and Identifying the Natural Endpoint of Electoral College Reform,” fordham.edu, Jan. 2020
- Jeff Merkley, “This alternative to the electoral college doesn’t require a constitutional amendment,” washingtonpost.com, Nov. 23, 2020
- Sarah Mervosh and Matt Flegenheimer, “How Early Do Presidential Campaigns Start? Earlier Than You May Think,” nytimes.com, Dec. 31, 2018
- National Popular Vote, “Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote,” nationalpopularvote.com (accessed Jan. 18, 2021)
- National Task Force on Election Crises, “A State Legislature Cannot Appoint Its Preferred Slate of Electors to Override the Will of the People After the Election,” www.electiontaskforce.org (accessed Jan. 19, 2021)
- Thomas H. Neale, “Electoral College Reform: Contemporary Issues for Congress,” fas.org, Oct. 6, 2017
- OpenSecrets.org, “2020 election to cost $14 billion, blowing away spending records,” opensecrets.org, Oct. 28, 2020
- Pearson Education, “Presidential Selection: The Framers’ Plan,” assets.pearsonschool.com (accessed Jan. 19, 2021)
- Larry J. Sabato, “A More Perfect Constitution: Why the Constitution Must Be Revised: Ideas to Inspire a New Generation,” 2008
- Norman R. Williams, “The Danger of the National Popular Vote Compact,” blog.harvardlawreview.org, Mar. 13, 2019