What George Mason Experts Are Saying about…the Electoral College

Posted: September 30, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

The issue: When you walk into the voting booth on Nov. 2 and press a button to vote for the next U.S. president, you are not actually voting directly for that candidate, but rather for a slate of electors. Some believe that this Electoral College system of voting for president works best, while others push for a direct popular vote. An excellent summary of the history and the way the Electoral College works can be found at the Federal Election Commission web site.

James Pfiffner
James Pfiffner
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Our expert: James Pfiffner, professor of public policy at George Mason. His major areas of expertise are the presidency, American national government, and public management. He has written or edited 10 books on the presidency and American national government, including The Strategic Presidency: Hitting the Ground Running and Understanding the Presidency. He received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Why was the 2000 election unusual?

“The candidate who was elected president, George W. Bush, lost the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes. He won 271 electoral votes, one more than a majority, and thus became president.”

Has this ever happened before?

“There have been several problematic elections: 1800, 1824, 1876, and 1888. In the election of 1824, for instance, states had begun to give their voters the right to choose the state electors, and Andrew Jackson received the most popular votes (about 38 percent); he also received the most electoral votes (99 of 261), but not a majority. Thus, the House of Representatives had to make the choice, and it chose John Quincy Adams, who had received about 32 percent of the popular vote and 84 electoral votes.”

Do you think the Electoral College should be abolished?

“Yes, because I believe the candidate who receives the most votes should not lose. The presidential election is a national election and should be determined by the people. The candidate who wins the most votes should be president.”

What would it take to change the voting system?

“A Constitutional amendment and I don’t see that happening. There’s not enough political support for it.”

Why do some people like the Electoral College?

“Opponents of change predict that in addition to splintering the two-party system, a direct popular vote approach would lead to disruptive recounts and challenged elections. Minor political factions could have an incentive to run candidates for president with the hope that they would be able to force a runoff election if no candidate gets 40 percent of the vote.

“Interestingly, George Mason, as a founding father, disagreed with popular voting for president. He thought it would be impractical. He thought that the extent of the country rendered it impossible for everyone to have the capacity to judge the candidates. But much has changed since 1787.”

Do you have a prediction on how the 2004 election will go?

“I think it will be close. As we saw in 2000, a few votes could make a big difference. However, our American system is stable, and our support for the Constitutional process is stable. Even if the winner of the popular vote is not elected president, I don’t believe there will be riots in the streets.”

Write to at