An essay which contemplates the defects of the United States Electoral College, an elitist system that favors the political class and its economic supporters over the people, as the 2020 presidential election grows near…
by: Arthur Hoyle
In a few months, a sharply polarized American electorate will go to the polls to vote in the 2020 presidential election. If national polls can be trusted, and if current findings hold up, a majority of Americans will vote to end the presidency of Donald Trump, a chief executive widely acknowledged to be one of the most inept and untrustworthy occupants of the White House in our nation’s history. But will the wishes of the majority be realized? If two recent presidential elections are any guide, there is a strong likelihood that Trump will be re-elected, and that the American people will be saddled with four more years of political chaos and corruption. This outcome is possible because of the constitutional article that mandates the selection of our president through an Electoral College rather than through the direct vote of the citizenry.
The Electoral College was established at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It consists of a body of electors chosen every four years to select the president of the United States from a field of candidates. The Constitution assigns to the states responsibility for choosing the membership of the Electoral College, so there are actually fifty-one electoral colleges, including one from the District of Columbia. States are free to use any method for selecting electors that their legislatures dictate. Over time, custom and law have settled on the party system for choosing electors. Every four years, at their state party conventions, Democrats, Republicans, and any third or fourth parties on the ballot, appoint a slate of electors. The Constitution excludes publicly elected federal officials from membership in the Electoral College. Most electors are state party officials, party loyalists, and donors.
The number of electors chosen for each state mirrors that state’s representation in Congress. The House of Representatives has 435 members, apportioned according to population. Their number is fixed by law and does not change with increases or decreases in population. Each state also receives an additional two electors, one for each of its senators. The District of Columbia has been awarded three electors, the same number as the least populous state (Wyoming), bringing the total number of electors to 538. To become president, a candidate must win a majority of the electoral votes, at least 270.
During a presidential election, the names of the nominees for president from each party appear on the ballot. When a citizen votes for a nominee, he or she is actually voting for the slate of electors pledged to that nominee. About a month after the November election, when the popular vote has been tallied, the electors pledged to the winning candidate in each state meet on the same day in their state capitols to cast their votes⎯one vote for president, and one vote for vice president. The Constitution made electors free agents, not bound by the popular vote. But SCOTUS in its recent ruling has bowed to historical precedence and has allowed states to bind their electors to the popular vote. This decision adds strength to the argument that the Electoral College is a legacy from the past that we should discard.
States have the discretion to determine how their electors are apportioned, based on the popular vote. Under current practice, all but two states follow the unit rule, which gives all of a state’s electors to the candidate with the most popular votes. Maine and Nebraska apportion their electors on the basis of the popular vote in each of their Congressional districts, making it possible for their electoral vote to be split.
After the electors have cast their votes, their ballots are forwarded to the US Senate where, under the supervision of the current vice president, they are counted. The vice president then announces the names of the winning president and vice president. The electors’ job is done, and the Electoral College disbands for another four years.
This system, which is used only in the United States and only for the election of the president and vice president, is inherently undemocratic and invites all sorts of political mischief that undercuts the sovereign will of the people and casts doubt on the legitimacy of the national leadership. The most flagrant defect of the system is the unit rule, which disenfranchises millions of voters whose candidates receive no electors, regardless of how many popular votes they received. A candidate can lose a large state’s popular vote by only a few hundred votes out of millions cast and come away without a single elector. This happened in the 2000 election when Al Gore lost Florida by 537 votes but did not a receive a single one of Florida’s twenty-five electoral votes.
The system also distorts the principle of political equality⎯one person, one vote⎯by making some votes more important than others. A vote for the candidate who wins a state in a popular vote landslide is less important than a vote for the candidate who wins a state by a hairsbreadth. Were the president chosen by direct popular vote, all votes would carry the same political weight. Another distortion occurs because votes from a state like Wyoming (pop. 577, 737) with a small population have more electoral clout than votes from a state like California (pop. 39.5M). This is because, despite its tiny population, Wyoming receives two extra electors for its senators, just as California does. And it doesn’t matter how many people go to the polls to vote. If only one person from Wyoming voted, the state would still send three electors to the Electoral College. Voter turnout has no impact on the electoral count for each state, though obviously it does affect which candidate’s electors get to vote in the Electoral College.
The system also distorts political campaigning for the office of the presidency. Candidates do not campaign extensively, if at all, in states that are certain to cast their electoral votes for one party or the other. They may go to these states to raise money, but they focus their campaign strategy and efforts on highly competitive battleground states whose voting outcomes can decide the election. This practice further diminishes the political significance of voters in states with predictable electoral outcomes, and contributes to political polarization.
One serious consequence from these distortions is that a candidate who loses the national popular vote may win the electoral vote and become president in defiance of the will of the people. This has happened seven times since the founding of the Republic, and twice in our young century. In 2000, George W. Bush won the electoral vote 272-267 over Al Gore despite trailing him by 539, 893 votes in the national total. In 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular election by nearly three million votes, but won the Electoral College by seventy-seven votes. Such outcomes put in office presidents of questionable legitimacy and may lead to policies that do not reflect the will of the people, such as the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, and the Trump administration’s border policies and position on climate change. Over the long term, frustration of the popular will contributes to a breakdown in trust of our political institutions, breeds apathy and cynicism in the electorate, and sets the stage for the kind of autocratic rule that Trump embodies.
Given its many obvious defects, one must ask why the framers of the US Constitution established the Electoral College as the method for choosing the president and vice president. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were addressing several issues as they contemplated selection of the young country’s president. Some delegates distrusted the populace, feared mob rule, and saw direct election of the president as an invitation to tyranny. Others were concerned about finding a balance between the powers of the national government and the powers of the states. Southern states, with their slavery laws, were especially sensitive to this issue. Because southern states could count their slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining their representation in Congress, they exercised a disproportionate amount of power at the national level that enabled them to snuff out any federal attempts to abolish slavery. But their slaves could not vote, so in a direct national election southern citizens would be greatly outnumbered by citizens from northern states that prohibited slavery. The Electoral College system, by granting southern states the same number of electors as they had Congressmen and Senators, allowed these states to finesse their minority status in the national voting pool. The Electoral College is yet another way that slavery in the South has poisoned the republic, using the rationale of federalism⎯states’ rights⎯as a mask for racism.
The Electoral College is, at bottom, an elitist system that favors the political class and its economic supporters over the people. The framers were members of this political class who, in designing the Electoral College, sought to distribute political power equitably amongst themselves. Compromises that undercut democratic principles were reached in an attempt to accommodate all the political interests then in play. This warped system has evolved over two and a half centuries and brought us to our present impasse, in which a minority Republican Party, using voter suppression and gerrymandering at the state level, and influential propaganda organs like Fox News nationally, has gained almost complete control of the national government, which it uses to further the special interests of a narrow band of the American electorate.
But democracy can still be rescued, but only if the people (demos) claim their power (kratia). The rescue requires an educated citizenry that makes full use of the ballot to put in office men and women who care about the common good. Efforts to reform the Electoral College have been numerous, and all have failed because the entrenched political class has no intention of loosening its grip on power. The citizenry must take back our country by enlightening itself about its best interests and voting for people who can be trusted to advance those interests. Don’t let George do it. It’s up to us.