The Electoral College has played an outsize role in several elections in recent memory, and a majority of Americans would welcome a change to the way presidents are elected.
Prior to the 2020 election, many observers noted that – if Donald Trump were to win – his most likely path toward victory would involve him winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote (as was the case in 2016). This did not happen, but the current political geography of the United States continues to allow for the possibility that the winner of the popular vote may not be able to secure enough Electoral College votes to win the office.
In 2000 and 2016 the winner of the popular vote lost the election after receiving fewer votes in the Electoral College. In order to continue tracking how the public views our system of deciding presidential elections, we surveyed 5,360 U.S. adults in January 2021. Everyone who took part is a member of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an only survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.
In January 2020, Pew Research Center ran a survey experiment in which this question was asked in two slightly different ways. One used the language that had been used in 2000 and in subsequent surveys over the years, with the reform option asking about “amending the Constitution so the candidate who receives the most votes nationwide wins the election.” The other modified the option to “changing the system.” That survey revealed no substantive differences between asking about “changing the system” and “amending the Constitution.”
We did this experiment in large part because reform to the way presidents are selected does not technically require amending the Constitution – the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, for example, could in theory accomplish the same ends without the need for a formal amendment. Since there was no substantive difference in the survey results between the two question wordings, we have adopted the revised wording.
Joe Biden won the popular vote by a margin of about 7 million votes and 4.5 percentage points overall (51.4% of all votes cast across the country were for Biden, 46.9% for Trump). That ultimately translated into an even greater share of the votes in the Electoral College, but – for the second straight election – the outcome in the Electoral College was determined by a relatively small number of voters in a handful of swing states.
A modest majority of Americans continue to favor changing the way presidents are elected, as they did in a January 2020 survey: 55% in the new poll say the system should be changed so that the winner of the popular vote nationwide wins the presidency, while 43% favor keeping the Electoral College system. The current balance of opinion is little changed over the last few years.
Attitudes about the Electoral College remain deeply divided along partisan lines. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents – especially liberal Democrats – say they would prefer changing the system to be based on the popular vote (71% of Democrats overall, including 82% of liberal Democrats, say this). Republicans and Republican leaners – especially conservative Republicans – prefer keeping the current system where the winner of the Electoral College takes office (61% of Republicans overall, including 71% of conservative Republicans, say this).
Overall, other demographic divides are relatively modest. Younger adults are somewhat more supportive of changing the system than older adults (60% of those ages 18 to 29 support changing the system, compared with 51% of those 65 or older). A similar divide emerges across levels of formal education. Those with postgraduate degrees are somewhat more supportive of changing the system than those with less formal education.
Partisan divides in views of the electoral college are most pronounced among those who pay the most attention to politics. Among partisans who say they follow what is going on in government and public affairs “most of the time,” 80% of Democrats but only 24% of Republicans say they favor changing the system. For those who say they follow politics “only now and then” or “hardly at all,” there is no partisan gap in attitudes.
On the whole, attitudes about the Electoral College are little changed over the last several years, and this reflects a largely stable partisan divide with seven-in-ten or more Democrats and about three-in-ten Republicans supporting reform.
After winning both the popular vote and the Electoral College in November’s presidential election, Democrats’ support for reform has slipped somewhat from a high point at the beginning of 2020. Republican support for reform remains low but has increased somewhat since 2016.