By Tasawwar Rahman (’22)
Democracy. As Americans, it is our most basic value. It is an ideal we continue to strive to make better, and a promise that should reflect our society. Like anything, our democracy is not without faults, be it gerrymandering, voter suppression, dark money, or foreign election interference. But in the 21st century where the losers of ⅖ of presidential elections won, the electoral college is undoubtedly one of the most undemocratic institutions that we regard in oblivion. One that both I and President Trump, who in 2012 tweeted “The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy,” agree should be abolished. The fact of the matter is that the electoral college has failed to live up to any of its founding or modern-day values, and disillusions millions of Americans who think their votes don’t matter.
Defenders of the college are quick to point out the misleading claim that they “give small states power” and that “abolishing it would allow the bigger states to bully the smaller ones.” Proponents of this theory believe that the electoral college’s principal bias lies in the overrepresentation of small states. In practice, however, this is inaccurate. For example, in 2000, the 18 votes gained by Bush in small states surpassed the difference Gore had from the rest of the nation. But this ignores the fact that in the election, the difference only mattered because of 537 votes for Florida’s 25 electoral votes, and thus still making the influence of small states negligible in determining the outcome of the election. Or look at the 2016 election, where Donald Trump won 7 of the 10 largest states and Hillary Clinton 7 of the 12 smallest states. Despite losing the popular vote and not benefitting as much from the small state bias, Donald Trump and George Bush both won for the same reasons; the winner takes all features of the college.
That bias is not without consequence as it has led to campaigning exclusively in swing states. This is a logical consequence because it doesn’t matter if a candidate wins by a vote or a million. Either way, they’d still gain all of the state’s electoral votes. That’s why in 2016, 94% of campaigning happened in just 12 competitive swing states, of which ¾ are in the top 25 largest states. This is also the reason why ⅔ of campaigning happened in just Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan, of which all are among the largest states. Finally, it’s why in an election where 130 million people voted, 80k votes in three states chose the President; A cohort of voters so small that they could all fit in the Big House.
Additionally, defenders claim that abolishing the college would cause “big cities to determine the national election,” but that is also unsubstantiated by the data. According to HUD’s “American Housing Survey,” half of Americans say they live in the suburbs while the other half is closely split between rural and urban (urban +5%). Furthermore, both parties have similarly large competitive suburban bases, and while Democrats do better in urban areas, Republicans match that in rural areas. This data strongly suggests that neither party can solely rely on its strongholds and must attract independents, who largely live in the country and suburbs, as well as all their safe voters to be competitive. But the winner takes all bias has hurt small towns because of its excessive focus on more urbanized large states. At least under a national popular vote, every voter is equal and given just as much a chance to be heard.
Furthermore, the nature of the electors’ role makes them unaccountable, obscured, and a bane to democracy. The fact is that electors, who are chosen by state political parties are invisible and lack accountability. Despite what their state statutes or people may say, the anonymous vote allows electors to choose anyone to be named president. These “faithless electors” are not an oddity but rather a fixture of the college that has allowed 157 electors to disregard their states when choosing the president. One case of consequence was the election of Vice President Richard Johnson. In that election, 23 rogue vice-presidential electors from Virginia chose to support his opponent because of his previous relations with black and mixed-race women. And other than in furtherance of racism, the college has never consequently acted to be a check on the people of the states and stop an unfit president-elect from being seated as the founders had intended it to be. They have for the most part, followed their states and abdicated their ill-founded role as the final authority. They have instead become a rubber stamp on the slanted way our presidents are chosen.
Finally, the electoral college is inherently undemocratic. The small state bias, in theory, allows a president to win an election with only 23% of the popular vote. Or a large state bias which, in theory, allows a president to win with only 27% of the popular vote. This isn’t a democracy, and elections have consequences. The critical questions of who will lead the nation into or away from war, how much taxes we pay, and how we receive healthcare are all questions that should be settled by a plurality of the nation with the consent of Congress. A vote in Wyoming isn’t inherently 3.6 times more valuable than one in California, nor should it be treated that way. Why should 3.7 million Americans living on American soil (the territories) not be allowed to vote when an expatriate can? Our democracy is too important for us to sit by and watch such gross transgressions are committed.
So how could our founders allow such a flawed system to pass, was it that our nation’s founders had some sort of premonition? No, instead it was the result of both fatigue and compromise from two groups that didn’t want Congress or the people choosing the president. Anti-congress founders felt that it violated the separation of powers and encouraged an improper relationship between the executive and congress. And anti-people founders felt that voters didn’t have the resources to be fully informed. However, in a world where the internet has allowed information to reach every corner of the world, this point is no longer applicable. Additionally, the founders never imagined the emergence of our two-party system. They assumed that a multicandidate race would split the vote and leave it up to congress in most cases. Nor did they imagine the winner takes all feature t would tilt the attentions of candidates so markedly. They envisioned the college as a filter for firebrands and unfit presidents, not as the rubber stamp of today. Finally and perhaps most significantly, Southern delegates shrewdly wanted additional voting power from their disenfranchised slaves and the electoral college, which is determined by congressional representation, and became an extension of the racist 3/5ths rule that counted enslaved people as only part of a person. Overall, the college was a flawed system that worked for a time when the idea of democratic rule was novel. But in the 21st century, our nation has changed remarkably. Times have changed and so too should the college.
However, since the electoral college was enumerated in Article Ⅱ, isn’t the only way to abolish it via a constitutional amendment? Maybe not, as there is a movement called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). Once passed in enough states to have the needed 270 electoral votes, it can decide every election in favor of the national winner. While there are legal arguments on both sides, and no matter what side prevails, it is evident that this will be the subject of much debate and litigation. It’s not a perfect solution, and it does nothing to address the disenfranchisement of Puerto Ricans nor does it fully abolish the college. However, it does succeed in weakening the undue influence that the institution has on selecting a president and hopefully will allow millions of Americans to believe their votes matter.
In closing, while our Constitution was an ingenious system, it cannot be said it is without faults. After all, the very document that gave us the world’s oldest democracy also allowed the enslavement and subjugation of African Americans. What made America great was that we always strived to do better from the Bill of Rights to the reconstruction amendments, so why can’t we be great again? Why can’t we, once more, ensure that this is a government of, by, and for the people and not the few (and definitely not Ohio)?