By Aaron Walters
There is no doubt that recent phenomenon in the United States have fostered a greater degree of institutional reflection in which the general public is now blatantly aware that the status of democracy in the country that has traditionally been perceived as the principal embodiment of a representative government has declined. In essence, the quality of democracy in the United States has undergone significant change which has negatively impacted the ability of the electorate to exercise the basic powers that are fundamental to a democratic system. There are a few key phenomenon which constitute the root cause of this erosion, but each can be connected to a greater institutional failure.
The Electoral College system, which has governed federal elections in the United States since its creation under the Constitution, has recently been the target of increased scrutiny not just from the American public, but also from mainstream politicians who have benefited because of it. For example, a Gallup poll conducted in early 2013 found that 60% of Americans, across the political aisle would vote for ‘doing away’ with the Electoral College, if presented with such an option. Disregarding the fact that nearly two-thirds of Americans can hardly seem to agree on anything that even remotely relates to how American politics is conducted these days, this consensus on the abolishing of the Electoral College is significant for a few reasons.
To begin with, the timing of when the poll was carried out is extremely pertinent to the conversation of how Americans feel about institutional change. Conducted in January of 2013, the poll conveniently measured how Americans feel about the Electoral College in the direct aftermath of the 2012 election, a time when a greater number of Americans are more likely to pay attention to contemporary political ongoings. It also happens to have been conducted after an election year in which the presidential election was not greatly contested, meaning there was little media coverage and public outcry directed towards the Electoral College, namely because it reflected the results of the popular vote. Not only was Barack Obama chosen by the Electoral College to serve another term as President, his achievement was further validated by his winning of the popular vote. Thus, the Electoral College produced a result which did not contradict the actual will of the people and therefore remained an unlikely target of both the national news media and the general public. This further illustrates the absence of fresh popular discontent amongst the American electorate towards the institution. Therefore, the possibility that poll respondents were persuaded by recent election contestation and inclined to answer in favor of abolishing the Electoral College simply doesn’t hold water.
Regardless of what one particular poll indicates about the American public’s perception of this failing institution, there still exists concrete evidence of the Electoral Colleges’ misrepresentation and erosion of democracy.
One such example of this system’s misrepresentation of a representative republican form of government is our recent electoral history. The presidential election of 2000 was highly contested primarily due to how close the vote counts were which essentially resulted in an election which was decided not by the American people but by elected officials and appointed members of the judiciary. Therefore the 2000 presidential election illustrates a subversion of democracy, by which the people’s will was overruled by the same people they had democratically elected in the prior election year. The root of the problem is in that the election was decided by government officials who represented institutions whose primary means of resolving such an issue resembled historical avenues by which presidents were chosen. In the early history of our country, presidential candidates were allocated votes granted to them by electors who were chosen not by the people directly but by the state legislatures, and therefore not representative of the people’s will. And while one could make the case that the state legislatures of the original thirteen states were technically elected by the eligible voting population at the time, one must also consider the greater context in which those elections took place. Particularly the context in which suffrage was only extended to white, land-owning males. Unfortunately, demographic data on the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States was, perhaps purposefully, not collected, however the Census of 1800 did count nearly a million slaves, which constituted one fifth, or nearly twenty percent of America’s entire population of 5.3 million. I bring this point up to emphasize the idea that similarly to the historical reality of how elections were conducted in the United States, at a time when suffrage was undemocratically restricted, the 2000 presidential election undermined the true will of the American electorate. By 500,000 votes, Al Gore was chosen by a majority of the American people to serve as the next President of the United States and yet due to an antiquated system which places a greater value on one Americans vote over another, the system which was originally meant to ensure democracy had the opposite effect of undermining it.
If such evidence of the subversion of American democracy by an institution created for the purpose of ensuring the longevity of that very concept hasn’t persuaded you of the institution’s failures, let us look no further than the second time in recent electoral history that American’s votes were manipulated.
There is no doubt in many Americans’ minds that the 2016 presidential election was the most hotly contested national election since 2000. This time however, the consequences for the American electorate were far graver and made much clearer to the sometimes-oblivious voting-age population. Just four presidential election cycles after the last national upset, the Electoral College again produced an outcome in which the winning candidate lost the popular vote but was still elected to serve in the Oval Office. This aspect of the election, despite again failing to represent the true will of the American people by in essence declaring the popular vote null and void showcased another institutional failure of the Electoral College.
Donald J. Trump lost the election by nearly three million votes but managed to pull off upset-victories in a few key swing states by razor-thin margins over Hillary Clinton, granting him the necessary electoral votes to become the next President. Michigan, a key swing state which had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012, had its 18 electoral votes allocated to Trump, even though he won the state by a mere 10,000 votes. To put this in perspective, the total number of Michiganites who voted in 2016 was nearly five million, meaning that less than half a percent of the state decided who received all 18 electoral votes. Not only does this winner take all election system result in skewed election results, it also devalues American’s votes, so that some have more influence than others. In order to illustrate this concept, let’s take a state where the margin was not so thin, California.
In 2016 Hillary Clinton did manage to pull of one expected win when she beat Trump by four million votes in the Golden State, thus procuring their 55 electoral votes. What many Americans, as well as the national media soon came to recognize was that those whose votes helped elect Clinton in California did not carry the same political weight as those 10,000 Michigan voters whom had elected Trump. This is due to the winner take all system that the Electoral College enforces, in which the margin of victory is irrelevant. Despite the fact that four hundred times the number of votes went to Clinton in California than went to Trump in Michigan, he was still elected President. Thus, a political reality is created in which population density and state of residence produces an outcome in which American’s votes are not counted equally.
This inequality of an American’s right to vote, which is fundamental to any democracy, regardless of the strategy by which elections are conducted is clearly a sign that democracy is being undermined in the United States by an outdated institution which has consistently failed to adhere to the will of the people. Not only is the outcome produced by the Electoral College undemocratic in nature, a majority of Americans have consistently demanded that the institution be reformed, replaced or, if necessary, outright abolished. For once, those who proclaim to represent the American public ought to do so and initiate democratic reforms to rid ourselves of an autocratic and inequitable system which has consistently robbed the American electorate of our constitutional right to suffrage.
I do believe the Electoral College is a great topic of discussion in relation to democratic erosion as it has been a highly contested issue for not one, but two elections, in our lifetime; especially when you realize that the candidate who won the popular vote has won the presidential race every time besides 5 (the two of our lifetime – Bush v. Gore and Trump v. Hillary), and 3 of those occurrences were before the 20th Century. It seems rather likely that there is some core issue causing elections to be closer and the Electoral College to be under scrutiny, however, I do have a few issues to bring up in relations to your arguments for why the “Electoral College has failed the United States.”
My first concern is it is not sufficient enough to lay a claim that the Electoral College has failed, but it is necessary to supply a solution. To reform, replace, or abolish the Electoral College, a change that would undo the practice of over 200 years, there has to be a compelling argument for a system that would perform better. If your argument is that it has failed due to popular vote not aligning with the winner, then you need a democratic system that will effectively and efficiently secure this without abridging the rights granted by the Constitution better than 91% (53/58 elections have aligned popular vote with Electoral College outcome).
If popular vote is the solution, which your post never directly says, but references on multiple occasions as a reason the system has failed, then how effective is that as a solution? The Electoral College was designed to prevent a tyrannic majority. If popular vote were in place, then the only voice that would matter is that of the majority. States, and cities, with a statistically insignificant population, would be extremely underrepresented, if not completely ignored. The places of important would then be the locations with the highest population density. The problem with this is there is little change in these locations. The last time there was a change in the top 3 cities, by population, was in the 50s when Los Angeles moved Philadelphia down to the number four position. Since then, the top three cites have been New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Rather than campaigning across a multitude of swing states (and these states vary by election to some margin), and cities in these states, you would likely see campaigning in these targeted, dense cities. I personally do not think this is a successful system to protect the voice of the minority while maintaining efficiency as the Electoral College has.
Another specific issue I find is your claim that the election results in Michigan were decided by less than half a percent of voters in the state. You are welcome to make the argument that these 10,000 votes on a scale of the 5 million cast is not statistically significant, but it does not seem consistent to say these 10,000 votes decided the election. The fact of the matter is that all 5 million votes determined who the electors in Michigan were, those votes had free range to go in any direction. Those 10,000 votes did not receive a special treatment compared to the other 4,990,000 cast to make them the deciding factor, they were just the margin of victory. It is more reasonable to argue that the roughly 5 million votes not placed, by those who chose not to vote, had an impact on the election as the margin of victory was so small. If anything, this should add value to the vote, because as election results are close, each individual vote matters that much more as a change of only half a percent can decide an entire state.
I really liked that you examined not only the results of the Gallup poll but also why those results were significant. This is a valuable exercise in divorcing the matter of the electoral college from the Trump election, which is imbued with much more emotion. It strengthens the results of the poll a bit more by ensuring that people aren’t advocating for an end to the Electoral College just to de-legitimize the Trump presidency.
I was a bit confused by your conception of the Electoral College and idea that the election was decided by “elected officials and appointed members of the judiciary.” Electors are typically chosen by the candidates’ political party, not elected by the people. Also, though this is not exclusively the case, most of the electors respect tradition and vote in agreement with the candidate chosen by their state. I can’t personally think of any instance where an elector choosing another candidate has altered the results of the election, so I think this issue should take a backseat to the more impactful, pressing issues. (more info- https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/about.html )
I find that the bigger issue is with the disproportionate representation of the electoral college, which is what you were addressing in the comparison between California and Michigan. I think it would be very interesting to compare these states to the few proportional representation states that are in the Electoral College and see what the final Electoral College result would have been if all states operated according to this principle. This is reminiscent of the issue in the Senate with 2 votes from each state representing vastly different numbers of people in each state according to the population of that state.
There’s lots of literature examining why the electoral college is biased toward Republicans, many of whom have a rural base that is benefitted by the allocation of votes in the Senate and Electoral College. I think revealing this bias in your blog would strengthen it a lot!