The Best Laid Plans: Unintended Consequences of the American Presidential Selection System
28 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2020 Last revised: 9 Mar 2021
Date Written: April 1, 2020
The mechanism for selecting the President of the United States (the “Electoral College”) causes outcomes that weaken American democracy and that the delegates at the Constitutional Convention never intended. The core selection process described in Article II, Section 1 was hastily drawn in the final days of the Convention based on compromises made originally to benefit slave-owning states and states with smaller populations. The system was also drafted to have Electors deliberate and then choose the President in an age when travel and news took weeks or longer to cross the new country. In the four decades after ratification, the Electoral College was modified further to reach its current form, which includes most states using a winner-take-all method to allocate Electors. The original needs this system was designed to address have now disappeared. But the persistence of these Electoral College mechanisms still causes severe unanticipated problems, including (1) contradictions between the electoral vote winner and national popular vote winner, (2) a “battleground state” phenomenon where all but a handful of states are safe for one political party or the other, (3) representational and policy benefits that citizens in some states receive but not others, (4) a decrease in the political power of non-battleground demographic groups, and (5) vulnerability of elections to outside interference. These outcomes will not go away without intervention. Several paths for reform can address these problems and have an identifiable path to success. The most promising of these is the formation of interstate compacts to allow aggregate action by multiple states at once. Any proposal to reform the Electoral College will likely face legal and policy challenges. But given the substantial and pervasive problems of the current system, citizens and lawmakers must sooner rather than later seriously consider reform.
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