Millions of Americans have cast their vote for the next U.S. president, but not all of those votes will be counted equally, even if the system works perfectly. And the candidate who wins the most votes might not be the one who is elected.
This all by design: The Electoral College system favors voters in a small group of battleground states at the expense of most Americans and over-represents white voters while ignoring many voters of color. A growing chorus of legal and policy experts, along with the majority of Americans, believe it should change.
“The history of the Electoral College is not anything to be proud of,” said John Kowal, vice president for programs at the Brennan Center for Justice and an expert on the Electoral College. “At the root of it is a distrust of voters and a desire to appease the slave-holding South by giving them more power.”
Like many critics of the Electoral College, Kowal believes the system is flawed in multiple ways. But at its core, the system is antidemocratic: On five separate occasions — the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016 — the college has awarded the presidency to the candidate who lost the popular vote.
The U.S. doesn’t actually have a system for a national popular vote. Instead, voters in each state cast their ballots for candidates in hopes of winning all the state’s electors, who then convene in December to pick the next president. States are granted electors proportionate to their populations, with a nationwide total of 538 electors. Candidates need to win an absolute majority of electoral votes, 270 or more, to win the election.
“The most unacceptable and undemocratic feature of the Electoral College is that candidates have no incentive to spend any money or time in California, New York, or Wyoming or Mississippi,” Kowal said.
In its current form, the Electoral College has divided U.S. states into “safe states” — where one candidate is almost sure to win — and swing states. As a result, candidates spend a disproportionate amount of time and money on swing states while ignoring the majority of the country. Voters in reliably Republican or Democratic states can easily feel like their vote doesn’t matter.
“People don’t participate in government because they don’t feel represented, and they’re right to feel that way,” said Jesse Wegman, author of the 2020 book Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College.
The Electoral College in its current form is also a serious impediment to racial justice. Rev. Dr. William Barber II, founder of Moral Mondays and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, has often publicly criticized the Electoral College, calling it “one of the last vestiges of the politics of a slave nation.”
When the college was first established, southern states were granted votes for three-fifths of their slave populations, even though those enslaved people were themselves unable to vote. This effectively gave white southerners an outsized influence on the electoral process until the end of the Jim Crow era.
Even today, many African Americans, who overwhelmingly vote for Democratic presidential candidates, live in reliably “red” states where electors vote for Republicans. This means that their votes don’t make it to the Electoral College, giving them less of a voice in presidential elections.
“Black folks in the South are outvoted all the time,” said Wilfred Codrington III, a constitutional law scholar and professor at Brooklyn Law. “Georgia might be in play and people are talking about it now, but it shouldn’t just be happenstance that now a state is in play.”
“A bunch of the swing states are not reflective of the country’s demographics,” he stressed. “White voters generally are overrepresented.”
The racist legacy of the Electoral College has also impacted efforts to change it. “White southerners stood in the way of even serious consideration of replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote, from the nation’s founding into the 1970s,” said Alexander Keyssar, Harvard professor of history and social policy and author of Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? “They did that because they had large disenfranchised Black populations.”
New momentum for change
So what can be done? Since the founding of the United States, there have been approximately 800 congressional attempts to amend or abolish the college, according to Wegman. Abolishing the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment, a huge feat and one that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. But there’s an alternative that has been gaining momentum over the past decade: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.
First introduced in 2006, the interstate compact is an agreement between states that would effectively create a national popular vote while still using the electoral college system — without requiring a constitutional amendment. Sixteen states representing 196 electoral votes have already passed laws enacting the compact, which will go into effect as soon as it has states representing 270 or more electoral votes. That could be as soon as the 2024 election.
Most states grant their electors on a winner-take-all basis, meaning that they give all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote in that state. But this isn’t required by the Constitution and only became the case after states passed winner-take-all laws in the 19th century. This means that the interstate compact isn’t a workaround of the Electoral College. “It’s using the Electoral College the same way it’s being used now,” Wegman said.
“The power exists within the United States Constitution to have a national popular vote for president,” said Patrick Rosenstiel, senior consultant to National Popular Vote, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that advocates for the interstate compact. “You don’t need to amend a city charter to fix a pothole. You can just fix a pothole.”
The effort has bipartisan support and a majority of Americans (approximately 58 percent to 61 percent, depending on polling) believe that the Electoral College should be replaced with a nationwide popular vote, indicating that they’d also likely support the compact.
Kowal believes a long-term fix should come through the Constitution, but he said the compact is an “ingenious” use of the powers that states already have. “If you move to a national popular vote, both parties would have to go to where their voters are,” he said. “A national popular vote system might energize people.”
Rosenstiel went even further, calling a national popular vote “the ultimate social justice issue.”
“The moral imperative here is that every voter, no matter what zip code they’re in, no matter what state they’re in, no matter what creed, should be relevant in the process we use to select the president of the United States,” he said.