Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election became the fourth time in American history where a presidential candidate dominated the Electoral College without securing the popular vote, and this recurrent outcome is an evident indicator that our country faces a constitutional legitimacy issue. The Electoral College overruling the majority of votes demands the concern of whether or not this system is an admissible approach towards American democracy.
Founded by the authors of the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College (EC) operates as an alternative system for electing the president, as opposed to relying solely on the popular vote or on Congress. Each state holds a settled amount of chosen delegates to the Electoral college, representing the number of members they have in the U.S. House of Representatives, plus two more because each state holds two Senators. There are currently 538 electors, and these electors are the ones who choose the next president.
After election day, constituents of each state meet under their capitals and cast their votes, which are then transferred to the president of the U.S. Senate, who is responsible for counting the ballots and declaring the official winner in front of the U.S. Congress.
Here is a 2020-2021 Electoral College timeline, provided by the U.S. Embassy.
(State Dept./M. Rios)
However, the efficacy of the Electoral College has been disputed by many, as there have been several attempts to change the system. The 12th amendment–sanctioned in 1804– altered the original process, where every elector cast two ballots and whoever received the most votes became president while the opposing candidate became vice president. This procedure carried a few shortcomings, which led to a controversial election in 1800, and thus was amended. After this amendment, there have been other efforts to revising the Electoral College, yet they have failed to pass the Senate.
One of the biggest criticisms of the electoral college, as it functions, is that candidates who win the popular vote can still lose because of the electoral college. The “statewide winner-take-all” mechanism that enables this feels problematic, especially for presidential elections.
The other issue with the electoral college is that it allots three electoral points per state, which is skewed considering the population breakdown across the country. Some states are far more populous than others, the result being that “4 percent of the country’s population in the smallest states end up being allotted 8 percent of Electoral College votes.”
In a Jacobin interview with Harvard professor Alexander Keyssar, he stated that “the largest single shift in public opinion about the Electoral College took place in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. Before the 2016 election, there was majority support among Republicans for a national popular vote, and among Democrats, there was a large majority…In the weeks after the 2016 election, Republican support for a national popular vote plummeted from more than 50 percent to 19 percent. However, according to a 2018 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey, 65 percent favored electing the president by popular vote and only 32% favored the Electoral College.
Skewed and inconsistent weightage given to votes means that some states have more power than others, furthermore, due to how demographics operate, this pattern is discriminatory towards urban-dwellers and minorities, for example, minorities constitute 58.1% of California’s population, a figure which is much lower in other states.
According to Keyssar, having the national popular vote be the deciding factor has been “stymied for most of our history by Southern politicians in the interest of maintaining white supremacy”– and that historical echoing remains palpable in America’s current political landscape.
This year’s drawn-out election has illuminated the lawful hiccups of the Electoral College that re-emerge every four years. Democratic Candidate Joe Biden had received an influx of votes, which broke Obama’s 2008 record for most votes for a U.S presidential nominee, and had surpassed the votes for Donald Trump by 4,000,000. Nevertheless, there was still a possibility for the Electoral College to interfere with the will of the majority.
The Electoral College, unfortunately, miscarries the idea that states operate as monoliths. For example, South Carolina had won the Republican Electoral Vote, yet, there were 1,091,348 state citizens who voted for Joe Biden. That was more votes for Biden than the ones he received in Vermont, Rhode Island and DC combined. Still, once one state leans towards one partisan party, the opposing votes are eradicated and silenced. As Congressman John Lewis asserted, “Democracy is not a state, it’s an act.”
In a general election, the Electoral College motivates candidates to entertain and accommodate the needs of certain swing states whose electoral votes bring forth the final conclusion. However, for non-swing states like New York or California, they are often overlooked and underemphasized. This insinuates that the weight of everyone’s votes in these states carry little value.
The red and blue divide is as much an economic one as it is an ideological one. A study has found that the economic growth being experienced by blue states is higher than that of red states. Many red states rely on the redistribution of wealth carried out by the federal government via taxation of blue states. Additionally, red states are likely to be engaged in industry sectors, whereas blue states tend to comprise skilled, often tech-based labor. Studies also indicate that these gaps are only growing in terms of the divergence and polarization between red and blue economies.
Populous states such as New York, New Jersey, and California are economic powerhouses that contribute significantly to the nation’s GDP as well as in federal taxes. The productivity of these states continues to increase while that of red states remains more or less stagnant, as illustrated by the diagram below:
Statistics also show that patterns of democratic support are changing, democratic power is now concentrated in smaller, more populous areas while republican support is spread out across vast, sparsely populated rural areas.
While capital should not be a determiner of the value of a vote, maintaining the operational efficiency and wellbeing is a matter of national interest, if this value is being jeopardized due to an inherently unfair breakdown that does not take economic contribution and population levels into account, then elections are not really representative of citizens but of jurisdictions.
The National Popular Vote Interstate Contact is a way to enable the popular vote. In an interview, University of Chicago political scientist James Lindley Wilson remarks about the cooperation between some states who are willing to grant their electoral votes to the popular vote winner, which is called the national popular vote movement, and it’s already passed into law in states like California and Vermont, totaling in 196 electoral votes.
Wilson is among many others who recognize that “the United States is probably closer to a breakdown and failure of democracy than it has been for a long time, perhaps since the Civil War.” Recognizing the economic drivers of polarization between states is essential to reevaluating the efficacy of the electoral college and moving towards a method that incorporates the popular vote. After all, during elections, it should be the people, not an outdated, biased system that has the last say.