With the 2020 presidential election still undecided, all eyes are on the electoral college. While the two-century old system has withstood tumultuous elections seasons and even the Civil War, many are now questioning its legitimacy. Some states, like Colorado in this just-passed election, are turning to a “popular vote compact,” promising to circumvent the system by pledging their electors to the popular vote winner, even if the state doesn’t vote for him or her. So is it true that the electoral college is “unfair”?

“American democracy isn’t just quirky — it’s also unfair. Five times in our history, presidential candidates who have won more votes than their opponent have still lost the election. Why? Our 230-year-old jerry-built system for picking the president, known as the Electoral College.”
-Jesse Wegman, October 8, 2020, New York Times

Mostly false or misleading. Significant errors or omissions. Mostly make believe.

While “fairness” is inherently in the eye of the beholder, the Electoral College system was carefully calibrated to take into account the opinions of citizens all over the country.

While some have tied the Electoral College to slavery, the debate at the Constitutional Convention that produced the system had little to do with slavery. Instead, the Founders tried to balance the interests of different kinds of states, such as large and small states, and states in different geographic regions. Instead of a direct popular vote, which would privilege voices from high-density areas like modern-day California, Texas, and New York, the Electoral College ensures that while populous states have more electors, smaller states get a boost so that their voters cannot be ignored or passed over by presidential candidates.

Additionally, the Electoral College makes it much more difficult to interfere with presidential elections, since they are really 50 statewide elections and those seeking to skew the vote have to find precisely the right place to do so. It’s also often argued that the Electoral College gives a handful of swing states all the power, which critics claim is “unfair” to other states, but the states that end up deciding elections change all the time. Arizona, for example has become a critical state in our still-undetermined 2020 presidential contest. With the exception of Bill Clinton in 1996, Arizona hasn’t voted for a Democrat since Harry Truman in 1948; similarly, in the last two elections, Ohio has become a solidly Republican state, when previously it was among the most toss-up swing states in prior elections.

While anyone can claim that any system is “unfair” for subjective reasons, the Electoral College is designed carefully precisely to be fair to all American voters, so that we all can have a say in choosing the next president.