When you cast your ballot, you're not actually voting directly for your favored presidential candidate. Instead of a direct popular election, the United States has the Electoral College, a group of electors who represent each state's votes. The Electoral College was established in the Constitution to protect minority interests and mitigate the possibility of a regional candidate. However, some critics argue that the advantages of a direct popular election including reflecting democratic principals, outweigh the disadvantages.
Advantage: Aligns with Democratic Principles
The United States has a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy: Citizens elect representatives rather than voting on each bill. However, many people believe that a direct popular election is more democratic and fair than the Electoral College. After all, the Electoral College makes it possible that a candidate who wins the majority of the votes could still lose the election. This is a situation that has caused controversy in the election years of of 1800, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016 when the elected president won the Electoral College and the presidency but did not win the popular vote.
Advantage: Represents Citizens Equally
A direct popular election also ensures that citizens' votes have equal weight. The electoral college leads to a heavy emphasis on swing states and also typically over-represents citizens in rural states. In 2004, for example, candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry campaigned heavily in states such as Nevada while ignoring political issues in New York, a state that Kerry was sure to win, according to the University of the Pacific. In the 2016 election, "swing states" that might vote Republican or Democrat like Wisconsin were targets of candidates Donald J. Trump and Hillary R. Clinton. The official 2016 election results from the Electoral College gave Donald J. Trump the victory with 306 electoral votes v. Hillary Clinton's 232 votes. However, in the popular vote, Trump only received 62,984,825 votes against Hillary Clinton's 65,853,516 popular votes.
Advantage: Encourages Voter Turnout
Some critics argue that more people would vote in a direct popular election, according to the University of the Pacific. Under the Electoral College system, voters in states that are overwhelmingly in support of one candidate might feel like their vote is unimportant. In contrast, in a direct popular election, each vote matters equally. In the 2016 election, only 58 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. On average, studies show that falls in line with historical averages showing around 60 percent of eligible voters casting a vote in presidential election years.
Disadvantage: Allows Regional Candidates
In a direct popular election, a candidate could theoretically win without having broad support throughout the country. For example, if a candidate was very popular in New York City, Los Angeles and other large cities, she might not need to earn votes from other areas of the country. Electing a president who did not have broad regional support could lead to a fractured and less cohesive country, according to the Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.
Disadvantage: Creates Logistical Challenges
According to the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School, some proponents of the Electoral College argue that it isolates election problems, such as illegally extended voting hours or irregularly high voter turnout. In a closely contested direct popular election, every precinct across the country might require close examination, rather than a handful of states or precincts.
Disadvantage: Polarizes the Political System
The electoral college encourages a two-party system and rewards candidates who have broad appeal. A direct popular election would make it more possible for third-party candidates to succeed and would also encourage political parties to become more radical and extreme. Although many supporters of the electoral college argue that a two-party political system is more stable, some critics counter that having more than two parties would give Americans more choice.
Rebekah Richards is a professional writer with work published in the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," "Brandeis University Law Journal" and online at tolerance.org. She graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in creative writing, English/American literature and international studies. Richards earned a master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University.