For the second time in recent history, twice in sixteen years, the Electoral College has thwarted the will of the American voter. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, as did Al Gore in 2000. That is twice in 16 years that the Electoral College has failed us. The Electoral College is an 18th Century anachronism that may have made sense back then. But is the 21st Century it has become a major threat to our democracy.
The 2000 election was determined by 536 votes in Florida out of over 101 million votes cast nationwide for the two leading candidates. Al Gore won the national popular vote by 540,000. Others would say that the 2000 election was really decided by one vote in the United States Supreme Court. There were many errors and discrepancies in the Florida vote count. One key factor was that Patrick Buchanan received 30,000 votes in Dade County that really belonged to Al Gore due to the infamous “butterfly ballot” issue. Even Patrick Buchanan said after the election that those votes were obviously not for him. He then went on to add that he knew of no way that the error could be corrected.
This fact that a hand full of votes in a key state can swing an election is certainly a problem that needs to be fixed. In the 2016 election Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote by some 80,000 popular votes spread across three states. In the popular vote Hillary Clinton topped Trump’s totals by over 3 million votes. As evidenced by the 2000 results in Florida, it would be possible to change the election results by changing only a handful of votes in a key state. This situation leaves us open not only to mistakes such as the butterfly ballot, but to election fraud and tampering as well. To steal an election, it is not necessary to involve the whole country. The illicit result can be obtained simply by manipulating a key state or even key precincts.
Electoral College is full of mathematical aberrations which make for unfair elections. Wyoming has a population of 563,626 and 3 electoral votes, or one electoral vote for every 187,875 people. California has a population of 37,253,956 and 55 electoral votes, or one electoral vote for every 677,345 people. Thus, the vote of a Wyoming resident counts 3.6 times as much as the vote of a California resident.
The Electoral College system disenfranchises those who vote for the losing parties in each state. If you are a Republican in California or a Democrat in Texas you need not even bother to vote for president. Your vote for president will not even be counted in this winner-take-all system. The only way to make your vote count is to move your voter registration to a swing state, like Florida, where it just might make a difference. But such shenanigans would be shameful and ought not to be necessary.
18th Century Justification
The name “The United States of America” comes from the Declaration of Independence. But what the Declaration of Independence really says is, “… the thirteen united STATES OF AMERICA.” The emphasis was on the individual states and not on a union.
The Electoral College made sense in Eighteenth Century America. Back then America was much like Europe is today. The European Union is still a collection of nations, even though there is the beginning of a European government. In the Eighteenth-Century colonial America was also a collection of states. In the Eighteenth Century it probably made sense to vote for the president by states.
It was the Civil War that finally fused this collection of states into a nation. The Spanish American War in 1898 marked the birth of the American Century, wherein we became a superpower, capable of influencing events beyond our borders.
The Electoral College was designed to keep the ultimate control of presidential elections in the hands of the landed elite. As a result of this, electors can use various means to override the choice made by the voters of their respective states. Various states have inconsistent rules that allow electors to cast their electoral votes in ways not consistent with the state’s popular votes. This “override” function was not a flaw in the design, but rather an essential part of the design, which was seen as necessary in the 18th. Century.
The Founding Fathers were exclusively the white, male, landed gentry. The Founding Fathers created not a democracy, but a republic, wherein the nation’s sovereignty was vested in elected leaders. There was a marked distrust of the unwashed masses. While the common people were allowed to vote for their leaders, the ultimate control remained with the elite, the aristocracy. The Electoral College was created specifically to give the elite a level of control over the selection of presidents. It is for this reason that the rules for electors are so loose.
But there is an even darker justification for the Electoral College. Under the Constitution a slave was recognized as three-fifths of a man. The House of Representatives was apportioned according to this formula. The population of a slave state was counted as its free people plus 60% of its slave population. This same formula was used in the election of the president.
In adding up the votes casted for president, one could not just add up the popular votes from each of the various states. Rather, a system was needed to “bulk-up” the vote of the slave states to represent 60% of the slave population even though slaves were not allowed to vote. The Electoral College already embodied this formula as part of the apportionment of the House of Representatives. Therefore, the easiest and most direct method of bulking up the vote to adjust for the slave count
21st Century Elections
The fairest, most secure, and most democratic means of electing a president would be to abolish the Electoral College and to elect the president by popular vote. This would require an amendment to the Constitution. This would require a vote in Congress by a two-thirds vote in each house. Then, the amendment would need to be ratified by a three-fourth vote of the respective states.
This ratification process raises another 18th Century anachronism, that of treating all states as equals regardless of their respective populations. Wyoming has 564 thousand people while California has 37 million thousand people. And yet the ratification votes in each state would carry exactly the same weight, even though California is 66 times larger. A related 18th Century anachronism is the apportionment of the United States Senate, but I digress.
In order to ratify an amendment abolishing the Electoral College this would require the approval of 38 states. This would require the approval of many of the small states like Wyoming. All of the small states have a strong incentive to keep the Electoral College in place, as it provides them with a significance increase in their political power that would be lost if the Electoral College was abolished. There could be an appeal to “fairness,” but this might not be persuasive given the shift of power involved.
There is also a budding “back-door” approach to abolishing the Electoral College. If states representing a majority of Electoral College votes, each pledged to grant all of their electoral votes not to the winner of the respective states, but to the national winner instead, then the Electoral College would be brought into harmony with the popular vote. This back-door approach would negate the enhanced political powers of the small states and then make the abolition of the Electoral College achievable.