Pros & Cons of Selecting Government Officials by Direct Election

During the 21st century, political figures proposed repealing direct election of senators.
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In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000 ballots, but George Bush became president by winning the Electoral College 271 to 266. The United States does not have direct election of its president, yet most national, state and local offices are filled by the candidate with the most votes. Elections are complex processes, and direct elections have both advantages and disadvantages.

1 It's Fair

In a direct election, everyone’s vote counts for the same amount. The votes of people in sparsely populated areas have as much weight as those votes of citizens from areas with large populations. This isn't true in presidential campaigns, since they are not direct elections. After the 2012 Democrat and Republican conventions, the presidential candidates visited just 10 states where enough electoral votes were up for grabs to make campaigning there worthwhile. The candidates focused on the few states that might swing either way, so the votes in other states were less important. These votes were considered locked in, a lost cause or too few to be concerned about.

2 It Encourages Representation

In direct elections, politicians are responsible to the voters who elected them. If they have hopes of being reelected, they must listen and respond to their constituents. This wasn’t always the case in the Senate. The general public did not directly elect U.S. senators until 1913, when Congress passed the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. Prior to this, state legislatures voted for senators. These representatives were not above offering bribes and making threats to get seated. Some senators focused on appeasing important members of their state legislatures rather than responding to citizens.

3 It's Reliable

When a direct election is held, the results are certified as soon as all the votes are counted. It can take much longer to seat a winner if representatives vote. When U.S. senators were still chosen by state legislatures, struggles between political parties made elections difficult. For instance, during the mid-1800s, Indiana’s State House couldn’t select a senator for two years. At the end of that century, Delaware’s legislature struggled with the process, and the state didn’t have a senator for four years.

4 It Muffles Minorities

If everyone’s vote counts in a direct election, then majority rules. This can result in minority suppression. For instance, in some states, judges are elected positions. Often the percentage of minority or female judges in a district does not correspond to the demographics of the population. Most state judges are white males. The American Bar Association has proposed that the judiciary represent the diversity of its district’s population. This is especially a concern when, in some districts, minorities make up the majority of the prison population.

Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.