Share This Article
Elisabeth Woodcock critiques the US electoral system and argues for potential reform of the Electoral College.
In this unsuspectingly strange election year, arguing for the reform of the Electoral College may seem odd, especially when so many other issues concern us and because the system is only really detested when it doesn’t work in favour of our preferred party. Regardless, the Electoral College is inherently undemocratic, built on racist origins and manipulative of US Citizens.
If you are unfamiliar with the structure of America’s democracy, I suggest you watch this short clip, explaining the Electoral College, before reading further. But essentially, the Electoral College is made up of a number of representatives from each US state, depending on that state’s population. Together, these 538 individuals vote for their preferred candidate in a separate election on the 14th December, and this is the vote that ultimately determines the winner of the election (not the nation-wide-vote, contrary to popular belief). The candidate with more than 270 electoral votes, becomes president.
One of the most significant flaws within the Electoral College system is the disproportionate weight that it places on certain states and votes, and the consequential challenge to incentivise voters.
Whilst the Electoral College attempts to give each state a certain number of electors depending on its population, the US Constitution grants every state two senators, regardless of its population. As such, the proportionality of electors to citizens is skewed across the country.
Wyoming is granted three electors, with a population of 586,107, whilst California has just 55 electoral votes to cover 39,144,818 citizens. Consequently, a voter in Wyoming carries 3.6 times more weight than a voter in California, thereby rendering the system undemocratic – for failing to acknowledge all votes equally.
Consequently, encouraging citizens to vote in states with less electors is challenging. In the 2016 presidential election, only 55.7% of the voting age population voted, encouraging analysts to question whether the elected president accurately reflected the beliefs of the American population.
Another problem with the Electoral College system is that it was founded on inherently dehumanising and racist principles. Whilst this does not necessarily limit the efficiency of the college, to overlook such standards would be to approve of America’s disgusting history of slavery.
In the making of the Electoral College, under the 12th Amendment (1804), Southern and Northern states debated over the number of electoral representatives they would receive, as the South’s horrifying number of Black slaves, contributed to their large population and systemically would afford them more electors per state. As the Black population were not granted suffrage rights, this led to the South’s capitalising on their representative electors, to increase votes in favour of maintaining slavery and upholding supremacist values. This system is what allowed slave holder, Thomas Jefferson, to gain an advantage over Aaron Burr and abolitionist John Adams and practically “[ride] into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves.”
Most appallingly, the US were not so much concerned with this exploitation of the slaves to increase power in southern states, instead, they were concerned with the concept that slaves were being counted in the population census at all. Thus, the 3/5th Compromise was introduced, to ensure that only 3 Black people were counted in the census, for every 5 that existed. Consequently, the number of electors granted to each state was changed.
If this doesn’t provide enough incentive to reform the process of allocating electors, then I’m not sure what does. And personally, what I find to be most concerning is the inability for modern-day voters to understand the horrifying scope of America’s mistreatment of Black people, due to the inaccuracy of historical censuses. How can we even begin to fathom such maltreatment if the history books are only telling us about 3/5ths of the suffering endured by the Black population?
Lastly, the Electoral College allows state gerrymandering to significantly affect the presidential election, thereby actually encouraging senators and state representatives to manipulate citizen voting.
The district maps within a state are redrawn every 10 years. In most states, this line-drawing process is actually done by state politicians. Senators and state representatives essentially go through communities, re-drawing boundaries to strategically determine which voters they want in their district and which ones they don’t, to maximise the votes they receive in the elections for the senate and the house of representatives. Consequently, when the presidential election comes around, citizens are manipulated by the district they have been placed in, thereby significantly influencing individual’s votes.
By ‘packing’ a district (strategically drawing a district to include as many of the opposing party’s voters as possible), a party is able to win surrounding districts by convincing citizens that the opposition’s strength has been diluted.
By ‘cracking’ a district (dividing clusters of opposition voters into several smaller districts), supporters of the opposition will be outnumbered in each district, encouraging voters to convert or refrain from voting.
Albeit strategic and successful, true democracy is ensuring that citizens choose their elected leaders by voting, instead, gerrymandering allows politicians to choose their voters. Professional sports persons cannot redraw the sidelines on a field if they run out of bounds – neither should parties. Gerrymandering also undermines the purpose of an election campaign; to convince potential voters of a candidate’s capabilities.
Lastly, the winner-takes-all-policy means that swing states receive significantly more attention from candidates than states that are typically democratic or republican. National Popular Vote, the bipartisan group behind a proposal to eliminate the winner-takes-all-policy, claims that, “Battleground states receive 7% more federal grants than “spectator” states.” Indeed, it is arguable that the inclinations of candidates towards swing states does not have any major systemic ramifications. However, these tendencies of the political candidates reinforce, to voters in typically fixed states, that their votes are comparably insignificant, disincentivising these individuals and thereby contributing to an undemocratic culture around voting.
To reform the Electoral College entirely would be a significant challenge. Making this constitutional amendment would require the votes of 2/3 of the House of Representatives, the votes of 3/4 of the nation’s states and 2/3 of the Senate. Support of such magnitude is arguably rare for any debate that is sharply divided in the United States – an amendment has not been supported to this extent since 1992. The Senate also commands a Republican majority, which presents a major impediment to constitutional reform, as the party has expressed its support for the Electoral College.
Regardless, let’s weigh up some options.
The most intuitive reform strategy is one based on a proportional electoral-vote allocation system that would apportion the number of electoral votes within each state, to the percentage of votes received by each party. For example, if 53.61 percent of the state is in favour of Democrats, and if the state has 12 electors, then the state would allocate 6.4332 (0.5361 x 12) electoral votes to the Democrats, rounding to the nearest whole. This strategy would also reconsider the number of electors granted to each state every election year, depending on population fluctuation.
By recalculating the number of electors granted, this system would firstly serve to eliminate the disproportionate value of votes that individuals in some states hold, over other states – thereby incentivising citizens to vote and restoring democratic principles. This would further eliminate some of the racial underpinnings that still lie in the current elector numbers, particularly in southern states. Furthermore, since Black people, who arguably provide fervent votes for the Democrats, are often scattered throughout red states, this reform would encourage culture change, and provide a reminder that their ballots are as valuable and powerful as anyone else’s. Most significantly, this scheme, if implemented Constitutionally, would abolish states’ winner-takes-all policy, thereby reducing gerrymandering and encouraging more effective campaigning by candidates.
However, this mechanism presents various problems, a minor issue being that the use of decimal points in such a large-scale operation lends room for miscommunication or fraud by the media or lobby groups, especially considering the inherently biased nature of various media sources such as Fox News (see here and here). The second issue is that this system requires extremely precise counting of votes to ensure electors are perfectly allocated. Significant resource efficiency is necessary, heightening the potential for voter fraud, similar to that of Florida in the election of 2000.
Another, similar solution makes use of natural numbers by proposing that electors are split roughly in proportion to the state’s vote, but the winner receives a marginally favourable adjustment. Using the aforementioned example, if 6.4332 electors are to be allocated to a party, the state would submit 7 electors instead of 6. The process would then continue in a similar fashion to allocate electors to the remaining candidates. The allocation process would stop when no more electoral votes remain.
A significant benefit under this system is that close voting percentages in some states will not be nearly as significant to the final election as they currently are. Under this scheme, in a state where there are 7 electors, if Republicans lose the popular vote, with 49% of votes, they will receive 3 electoral votes and Democrats will receive 4. Whether the Republicans receive 49% or 51% of the popular vote, translates to a difference of 1 electoral vote. However, under the current winner-takes-all system, the difference between Republicans receiving 49% and 51% of votes, translates to a significant difference of 7 electoral votes. With this distinguishing feature, this system (the integral proportional system) presents itself as a serious contender as an alternative to the existing winner-takes-all system.
Ultimately, the Electoral College may seem harmless, but it’s easy to say this when the recent election somewhat restored our faith in the American voting system. We should not forget that the college is what elected presidents like Jefferson and Trump in the first place, and that regardless of the elected party, the college continues to permit injustices within American democracy.