Reform Options & Wrong Way Reforms
- Direct election with instant runoff voting
- Proportional allocation of electoral votes
- Direct vote with plurality rule
- Congressional district method
- National Bonus Plan
- Binding proposal
- Removing the elector
- Wrong Way Reforms: The Congressional District Method
- Wrong Way Reforms: FairVote Policy Perspective
Direct election with instant runoff voting:
Instant runoff voting (IRV) could be used for presidential elections with or without the Electoral College. With a direct vote, voters would rank their preferences rather than marking only one candidate. Then, when the votes are counted, if no single candidate has a majority, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. The ballots are then counted again, this time tallying the second choice votes from those ballots indicating the eliminated candidate as the first choice. The process is repeated until a candidate receives a majority, reducing time and money wasted in a normal runoff election.
Instant runoff voting on a national scale has the potential to solve many of the current dilemmas introduced by the Electoral College as well as the problems introduced by some of the other alternatives. It would end the spoiler dynamic of third party and independent candidates and consistently produce a majority, nationwide winner. It also allows voters to select their favorite candidate without ensuring a vote for their least favorite (as often happens when the spoiler dynamic is a factor and a voter prefers a third candidate the most).
Individual states can also adopt instant runoffs without a Constitutional amendment. Unlike proportional allocation, which could be unfair if only used in some states, IRV would not have negative consequences if only adopted by a few states. Each state’s electors would still be appointed through a winner-take-all method, but the IRV states would now be guaranteed to have a winner with majority approval. IRV would be best instituted without the Electoral College though, so that the winner would not just enjoy a majority within any state, but within the entire country.
FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy strongly supports abolishing the Electoral College and replacing it with direct elections and instant runoff voting. See our web page on Instant Runoff Voting for more descriptions and visual examples and our page refuting arguments against direct election with IRV.
This system has been proposed with a number of variations, most recently in Colorado. As a popular alternative, it splits each state’s electoral votes in accordance with their popular vote percentages. This way, a candidate who comes in second place in a state with 45% of the popular vote would receive 45% of the electoral votes from that state, instead of 0%.
This system would greatly increase voter turnout and the representation of all parties in a state. It would also encourage candidates to campaign in all states rather than just those that are competitive. Though the majority, as always, would come out on top in each state, the minority's supporters would not be effectively contributing to their candidate's defeat when the whole of their state's electoral votes go to a candidate they do not support.
One problem with this system is the question of how to allocate electors proportionally. Percentages will seldom be equal to a whole elector after being proportioned, and a single elector could not be evenly divided among two or more candidates. Some suggest that one way to patch this problem of uneven electors would be to increase the number of electoral votes by a factor of 10 or 100 or more to reduce the margin of error. Others suggest rounding to whole votes, tenth votes, and a whole variety of decimal places beyond this. However, each of these, though reducing the amount of error, would still permit error and not succeed as thoroughly in making each vote count equally.
This would be difficult to pass on a nationwide basis and would most likely have to pass state-by-state. During this process, or even in the end if some states do not adopt the process, one party might gain an unfair advantage. This could happen if some states were dividing up their electoral votes while others were still giving all of their votes to the majority party. For instance, imagine California switching to a proportional allocation while Texas sticks with winner-take-all. The result would leave California's 55 traditionally Democratic votes split along proportional lines while all of Texas' 34 would likely go to the Republican.
FairVote supports this method of reform, though it is not our preferred choice. If the electoral votes for each state were proportioned exactly (which would necessitate fractional electoral votes and/or electors), this system would directly imitate the popular vote. However, we still have in mind that giving states different numbers of electoral votes in the first place provides imbalance and misrepresentation. Read a well-informed and descriptive article of proportional allocation here.
This method would abolish the Electoral College and require each person to cast one vote for the candidate of their choice. The candidate who receives the most votes nationwide would win the election, with or without a majority of the votes. This option would require a constitutional amendment to be implemented and would therefore need the support of 2/3 of Congress and 3/4 of the states.
This method of voting would more accurately reflect the popular will of the nation at large. Statistics have shown that more people vote when they know that their vote has a better chance at making a difference. Since each vote would affect the final total used to determine the winner, a direct vote would eliminate the Electoral College’s ability to create a non-competitive winner-take-all enclave that essentially dilutes people’s votes. Direct elections are simple and popular, and eliminate the potential problem of “faithless electors” betraying their pledges to party and public, and unfairly negating any number of popular votes.
A direct vote, however, would not eliminate the entrenchment of the two party system nor the “spoiler” considerations of minor parties and independent candidates. In a close race, voting for a candidate from a minor party could reinforce the same spoiler dynamic as exists within the current system. There is a possibility that with multiple candidates, a winner could be declared with just a small plurality of votes instead of a strong majority. Also, a close election would require a nation-wide recount rather than just recounting the states in question, which would make the process in such a situation much longer.
FairVote does believe that direct election is an appropriate goal for our electoral system. However, we also believe that it only comprises one-half of the best kind of system reform, direct election with Instant Runoff Voting which would ensure a majority, not just a plurality, outcome.
Congressional District Method:
This method divides electoral votes by district, allocating one vote to each district and using the remaining two as a bonus for the statewide popular vote winner. This method of distribution has been used in Maine since 1972 and Nebraska since 1996, though neither state has had a statewide winner that has not swept all of the congressional districts as well. Consequently, neither state has ever spilt its electoral votes.
This system does not address the disproportional aspects of the Electoral College. Using congressional districts to determine each elector would also draw more attention to the way districts are drawn, already a contentious topic in politics today. The vast majority of districts are drawn as “safe zones” for one of the two major political parties. For this reason, basing electoral vote allocation on congressional districts as well would raise the stakes of redistricting considerably and make gerrymandering even more tempting. (For more information see our page on the controversial process of redistricting.)
Also, while the current system causes the candidates to pay the most attention to just a handful of states, the congressional district method would actually make their attention even more tunneled. There are normally anywhere from 10-20 competitive swing states in any given election. With this method, candidates would shift their focuses to competitive districts, the number of which would be small enough to further reduce the reach of presidential campaigns, promises and attention.
Although we can see how this method might benefit some states individually, it is actually quite detrimental on a national scale. Because the spoiler dynamic, gerrymandering and very few competitive districts would be so decisive in the outcome of an election using the congressional district format, FairVote does not support this reform method.
This idea, proposed by the late Pulitzer Prize winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., retains the current Electoral College system, but also awards extra electoral votes as a bonus to the winner of the popular vote. The amount suggested by Schlesinger in his National Bonus Plan is 102 extra electoral votes (two for every state plus the District of Columbia). The extra boost of electoral votes would almost always be able to guarantee that the popular vote winner would also be the electoral college winner. While technically maintaining the institution, this option compensates for the uneven power given to the states by the Electoral College.
This method does not eliminate the spoiler dynamic of third party participation, but would encourage people to campaign and vote in non-competitive states in an attempt to win the popular vote. In the 2000 election, for example, Gore had no reason to campaign in Texas because, with a winner take all allocation of electoral votes, Bush’s conservative home state was clearly going to bring in a Republican majority. However, the Democratic voters living in Texas would have had more incentive to go to the polls if the popular vote affected the election. This situation is the same for the second place party in every state.
FairVote admires the attempt of this plan, but ultimately does not support it. Its bonus total is randomly derived and does not always ensure that the popular vote winner will also be the Electoral College winner, as a direct election does. It also does not deal with non-majority winners, and maintains the imbalance created by allocating a different number of electoral votes to each state.
Professor and author, Judith A. Best also has a proposal to amend the Constitution, although in a drastically different way than those we have explored so far.
Best would like to amend the Constitution to bind all electors federally, meaning that they would be forced to vote based on their party pledge if their party's nominee wins their state. Her amendment would also enshrine the winner-take-all unit rule into the Constitution.
Although it goes without saying, FairVote does not agree with this amendment proposal. Although federally binding electors would prevent future faithless electors, enshrining the winner-take-all allocation into the Constitution would only confirm the unrepresentative nature of the Electoral College system.
Several proposals in the last fifty years have wanted to remove the office of elector while retaining the Electoral College. This removes the problem of the faithless elector and guarantees that state's electoral votes are automatically given to the candidate winning the state contest.
Though the faithless elector is one problem in the current system, it is not the over-riding problem. FairVote does not agree with this proposal which only succeeds in fixing one tiny part of the problem with the Electoral College.
Wrong Way Reforms
This system, currently used by Maine and Nebraska, awards as many Electoral College votes to a candidate as congressional districts won in the state. Two votes (corresponding to the U.S. Senate seats) are awarded to the statewide popular vote winner.
The congressional district method does and will:
- Intensify the problem of gerrymandering.
- Make presidential elections even less competitive than under the the present system. Candidates will end up vying for the attention of a few districts, instead of a few states.
- Reduce voter equality -- the weight of a vote will depend not only on the state, but also on the district where it is cast.
- Intensify partisan gamesmanship state by state in a piecemeal manner.
- Done nationally, greatly increase the odds of the national popular vote winner losing.
FairVote Policy Perspective, Fuzzy Math: Wrong Way Reforms for Allocating Electoral College Votes, is a compilation of studies and media reports that lay out all of the arguments on this issue, and can be found below.