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Teaching activity

Electoral College research and debate

Mike McCartney

9th November 2020

The arguments for and against the current system for electing the US President are well known, but what really differentiates student answers is the depth and range of examples

I say the arguments are well known, and borrow these from the Edexcel 2016 mark scheme:

Arguments that the Electoral College is no longer fit for purpose include:

 all of the original rationale for the Electoral College has disappeared and it is now a constitutional anachronism

 the winner is not guaranteed a majority of the popular vote (or may even lose the popular vote), and consequently may lack legitimacy

 the Electoral College gives some voters more clout than others; extra weight is given to voters in smaller rural states (alternatively - smaller states tend to be safe for one party or the other and are consequently ignored by candidates) and the campaign is concentrated in ‘swing states’

 the long history of ‘faithless electors’  third parties are penalised  the exaggeration of the winning margin of ECVs compared to the percentage of the popular vote gives the winner an artificially strong mandate.

Arguments that the Electoral College is still fit for purpose include:

 the Electoral College is an important element of the federal identity of the constitution

 the Electoral College requires candidates to campaign across all regions of the US, when a national vote might enable them to concentrate on the major cities or regions of strength, or create an incentive to campaign in major media markets

 since the pursuit of ECVs determines the nature and course of the campaign, it is invalid to criticise the Electoral College for failing to reflect the popular vote

 since only one president is being elected, disadvantaging third parties is arguably not as significant as in an election for a legislature  administration is simplified by being the responsibility of the states and problems such as recounts are confined within one state

 ‘faithless electors’ have never affected the result

 the concept of a mandate is of limited relevance in a separated system; however ‘strong’ a president’s mandate, congressmen and senators will regard themselves as having their own mandate and will not feel any duty to support the president’s agenda.

But to support these arguments, and to help students prepare for a flipped classroom exercise, I would point to the following sources.

For far more detailed background and examples, see the Fair Vote website here - note the drop down bar also, with far more material.

There is a good opinion piece to evaluate from the UK based Electoral Reform Society here.

The same group also look at alternatives to the current system - something not all student responses do in examinations.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) also provide a mini academic debate of the system from two experts here.

And since we have to consider the idea of bias in the document paper for AQA now, this source from the conservative-leaning National Affairs is also well worth a look. It's a long-ish read, to be sure, but the author is a Professor of US History.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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