You Decide

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image montage: U.S. map, numbers (electoral college votes), stars, ballot boxImage CreditShould the Electoral College be reformed?

By Malcom Gay

Think you know where you stand?

It was one of the country’s greatest political myths: Americans went to the polls every four years to directly elect the country’s president. Then, courtesy of the 2000 election — with its hanging chads, star turn by the Florida Secretary of State and intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court — we received a crash course in the intricacies of living in a constitutional republic.

It turned out that all those years when many thought we were directly selecting a presidential ticket, Americans’ votes were in fact being filtered by the Electoral College, the body of 538 electors that actually chooses the country’s president and vice president. Once the popular vote has been tallied, these electors — often culled from the ranks of state elected officials, party leaders and politically active private citizens — cast their ballots for the candidate who received the most votes in the popular election. The system is winner-take-all in most states, meaning that whichever ticket receives a simple majority of the popular vote wins all of that state’s electoral votes; the minority candidate, by contrast, receives no votes at all. And it is this electoral vote, not the popular vote, that ultimately determines an election’s outcome.

In most years the system provokes little controversy: The winner of the popular vote usually wins the Electoral College vote too. But in 2000, George W. Bush won the presidency after losing the popular election by more than 500,000 votes. How? He garnered 271 electoral votes — one more than the 270 votes needed for a simple majority.

Welcome to the joys of our complicated, brilliant and flawed indirect democracy.

The Electoral College system has had its critics since its inception at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, but the controversy surrounding President George W. Bush’s victory prompted many to intensify their calls to reform the electoral system. To these reformers, the Electoral College, by virtue of its ability to override the popular vote, threatens to undermine the principle of majority rule. They add that our current electoral system adds to voter apathy by forcing candidates to concentrate on a handful of swing states and, their argument continues, that by favoring the country’s two major political parties, it does not accurately represent the will of the people.

On the other side of the ballot box are Electoral College supporters, who argue that the College is vital to our democracy in that it gives us a clear winner and forces candidates to build broad-based coalitions. They add that the College also hews to the intention of the framers of the Constitution by maintaining a balance between states’ rights and the federal government. Significantly, they argue, the Electoral College also protects our two-party system from fringe interests.


Think you know where you stand on this issue? During the course of this activity, we will ask you three more times: Should the Electoral College be reformed? Based on your responses, we will argue the opposite point of view. Only your final vote will count toward the results of this poll.

Should the Electoral College be reformed?

Nothing about the issues facing the candidates and American voters in 2008 is black and white. With these You Decide activities, you can explore both sides of an issue, put your own critical thinking to work, and discuss the pros and cons with others. In the end, perhaps you will ask different — and better — questions than those presented here.


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