“Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Abraham Lincoln’s idyllic words envisage a universe where normal people are empowered to elect their ruler via majority vote. While that may be the case for most countries, the United States, like in everything else, does things a little differently. The American democratic process uses a method called the Electoral College in order to elect their President.
It is imperative to distinguish the popular vote from the Electoral College. The popular vote is what the general populace casts indicating which candidate they want to see as the President. So what you see most Americans doing on social media and the news, marking ballots, is actually just the first part of the process.
The second, and arguably the more fundamental is the Electoral College. It is based on the 538 Electoral votes of which a candidate needs 270 (roughly half) to win a majority. The battle for the golden number “270” has been the highlight on most news channels. But here is what the 538 electoral votes represent:
- 435 seats of Congress, which are allocated, proportionate to the populations of each state. A census tracking population changes is conducted every 10 years to increase or decrease the number of seats per state.
- 100 seats of Senate (2 for each state)
- 3 specially allocated seats for Washington D.C (as per the 22nd amendment)
In essence, this marks an implicit conferral of power from the people to Electoral voters who have “pledged” to cast their votes in alignment with the majority of votes cast by the state. But it is important to note that the electoral vote count is not an accurate representation of the population of the state because each state irrespective of its numbers is granted two seats in the senate. This means that the ratio of population to electoral vote becomes distorted. Citizens of some states thus become more significant than others.
More people are familiar with the red (Republican) and blue state (Democratic) map analogy. Yet, it is important to realize that no state is completely red or completely blue. Even a highly Republican centric state would surely have some democrats to boast of. Yet when Electors cast the vote, they go by a “winner-takes-all” paradigm. All of the seats for the state vote for the Republic majority. There is no microcosmic representation of the population ratio voting for the minority in the electoral seats. Even if a candidate wins the majority by 1%, they take 100% of the seats for that state.
You might be thinking, “but that makes democracy and our contribution to it so indirect. Why was there a need to add the second step?” Well, the answer to this dates back to 1788 where the founding fathers of the nation such as Alexander Hamilton, sought to balance the will of the populace against the risk of “tyranny of the majority, in which those of the masses drown the voices of the minority out”. Hence, the Electoral College emerged into being a crucial mediation step, a kind of middle ground between the popular vote and the electoral vote.
It was enshrined by Article Two of the Constitution with good intention to make sure that populous states containing the majority of the population did not monopolize the election results. It was also thought that normal people did not possess sufficient information to make an informed decision. With the recent politicization of most social strata, the raison d’être of the Electoral College could be thrown into question altogether.
Yet even in 1788, there was some contention in the Philadelphia Convention where all 13 existing states of the time had to ratify the constitution. Southern states that were pro-slavery had greater populations due to the number of enslaved people than the Northern states which were anti-slavery and had a primary population of free people. Southern states, seeking to increase seats in Congress pushed for the 3/5th clause. The clause stated that an enslaved person would count as 3/5 of a person while determining the seats in Congress. While enslaved people had no rights and experienced severe disenfranchisement, white Southerners exploited their humanity yet again and thrived off overrepresentation in Congress. The Electoral College thus has a dark history of benefitting white Southerners.
Even today, the Electoral College is responsible for redirecting power from certain people towards others, albeit in a different context.
The entire fate of the election rests within the territory and with the people of “swing states” such as Florida and Michigan (which typically shift allegiances with every other election cycle). Whilst the Presidential candidates become complacent in their respective “safe states” (red or blue), swing states become the primary battleground where the campaigning war is waged.
It sends out the message that some voters are more valuable than others. As a result, citizens living in safe states who do not subscribe to the overarching political inclination of the state might also feel like their vote would not make a difference. The indirect nature of the process makes voters feel isolated from the eventual outcome. This translates in terms of low voter turnout.
Yet, the Electoral College despite its apparent success of over two centuries of ensuring a seemingly stable political arena is being questioned for its authenticity. A September 2020 Gallup poll found that 61 % percent of Americans were in favor of abolishing it. In fact, this debate resurfaces every few years, as its shortcomings are exposed. In 2020, Pete Buttigieg claimed: “The Electoral College needs to go because it’s made our society less and less democratic.” In recent memory (the past 20 years), two Republicans have won Presidency despite not having the popular vote. In 2000, Al Gore won the most popular votes but lost the electoral vote to George Bush. Whereas, in 2016, Donald Trump with a mind-boggling deficit of 3 million popular votes won the electoral vote.
My proposition? Remove the electoral college and restore democracy back into the hands of the people.
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