The Electoral College is Archaic and Outdated – but Abolishing it is Not Enough

The electoral college is a unique institution to the United States now and when it was created – though it had been subsequently adopted and abandoned for being undemocratic elsewhere – and has been long considered problematic. Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey led a bipartisan effort to replace the electoral college in 1969 in favor of a direct vote. The college has led to presidents winning without winning the plurality of the popular vote in 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016, as well as less clear minorities in the messy election of 1824. It is clear that, in this modern day, that the electoral college does not reflect the will of the people – though it clearly favors the Republican Party today whereas it didn’t clearly benefit any party up through the time of Nixon.

As a result, many Americans, especially Democrats, want to see the college abolished and replaced with a direct vote. Several states have pledged their electors to the national winner of the popular vote, regardless of how their own state votes, once the majority of electoral votes will be assigned in that manner through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

However, this is only grazing the surface of the problems with American republicanism, as our entire electoral system is based upon archaic institutions and premises that were never borne out. I wrote a lengthy piece on how the electoral system failed us four years ago, for the Inquisitr, and certainly things have gotten worse as Trump poked holes all through our institutions and constitutional safeguards throughout his first term. It stands that these problems will not simply go away by abolishing the electoral college, and if that is the sole reform passed these problems may get even worse as there are no longer safe states where more voters feel free to vote their conscience.

So, let us talk about the bases of our electoral system and how they have led us astray.

One thing our founding fathers were adamant about when they wrote the Constitution is that they didn’t want the sort of factionalism they saw in Britain which led to infighting and gridlock. Surely, we could have a system based on simply electing the best people who will work together and find the best solutions without forming factions. Well, our political parties are factions, and perhaps worse factions than those our founders feared, because there is a constant call for smaller groups within these factions to put aside their own ambitions for the glory of greater faction.

AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a wellconstructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.

[…]

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

James Madison, Federalist Paper #10

Certainly, modern parties do represent a number of citizens who are united and actuated by common passion and interest – that is why they have platforms, to express these passions and interests that unite them. However, despite the intention of preventing their formation, Madison concedes that it is impossible to prevent their formation:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

James Madison, Federalist Paper #10

So, the Federalist conclusion was thus to minimize the effects of these naturally arising factions. To this point, Madison suggests the institution of a Republic as opposed to a democracy where a faction of the majority cannot be quelled.

The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted.

James Madison, Federalist Paper #10

From this, as well, comes many features of the republic which our founders designed. We have winner-take-all districts to prevent the rise of factions – which of course didn’t work – and single seat districts. We have numerous checks and balances on the various branches to ensure that things cannot move swiftly without overwhelming support, so long as someone is willing to actually uphold them, which they haven’t recently. The biggest disappointment of this was the electoral college, which was designed with the intent to create elections where the field of presidential electors would be narrowed down and submitted to the House of Representatives to pick a winner: the best and brightest from among the field without concern of faction, not unlike parliamentary systems today. Yet, only three times in the history of the United States has the election been decided by the House: 1801, 1825, and 1877.

Far from the intent of the system: we now vote for slates of electors based on the person they have declared themselves to vote for – as of the time of this publishing, not a single ballot has actually been cast for President, but rather we all voted for slates of electors whose names very few people ever bother to look up. When the dust settles, 538 votes will be cast for President. In theory, the only limitation on these electors to cast their votes is that one person they vote for must not be from the same state as themselves – the founders were concerned that people would only vote from people from their own states because those would be the people that they knew. They were supposed to be the people to meet the candidates and judge them, deciding who was best. Yet, several states have prescribed fines for electors who stray from their preassigned candidate and the Supreme Court even recently upheld these punishments as constitutional despite obviously not being so to anyone familiar with the original design of the electoral college.

Factions rose up, despite the designs of the founders; we now refer to the most notable form of these factions as political parties. Our founders didn’t conceive of there being Democrats and Republicans, nor Democratic Republicans and Whigs, nor Federalists and Anti-Federalists – but for most of our history there has been two major parties. We got through Washington’s Presidency without formal factions and we had a period in the 1800s where we had a one party system under the Democratic Republicans. But, as seems to be the pattern with Americans, rather than deciding that we failed we just go on pretending that this is how it was supposed to be all along.

The Damage of the Electoral College

Rather than being the silly mechanism designed by the founders with naivety, the electoral college has become an even sillier and undemocratic system. Each state is given electors equal to their representatives and two senators put together while the District of Columbia is given three votes: the same as the least populous state based on the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution. Most of these are given to the winner of the state at large, while some states divvy up their votes based on districts in the state – and technically a state doesn’t have to allow a popular vote to choose the electors, but every state has chosen to give the popular vote to the people.

What results is that states with smaller populations get a massive boost in their representation in the electoral college. Let’s look at the five most populous and five least populous states in the United States as of the 2010 census (and DC had more population than Wyoming):

State Rank Population Electoral Votes Population per Vote
1 California 37,253,956 55 677,344.65
2 Texas 25,145,561 38 661,725.29
3 New York 19,378,102 29 668,210.41
4 Florida 18,801.310 29 648,321.03
5 Illinois 12,830,632 20 641,531.60
46 South Dakota 814,180 3 271,393.33
47 Alaska 710,231 3 236,743.67
48 North Dakota 672,591 3 224,197.00
49 Vermont 625,741 3 208,580.33
50 Wyoming 563,626 3 187,875.33

When it comes to selecting the President, essentially citizens in Wyoming get 3.6 times the say as people in California – which might be less alarming if they weren’t both safe states: California almost always voting Democrat while Wyoming always votes Republican. Why? Because the major difference between the two major parties is currently culture: specifically in terms of people’s freedom to be themselves or not without facing discrimination. People in urban areas come across more people who deviate from the norm just by the sheer number of people they see on a daily basis, interact with them, and learn to accept them. People in rural areas, however, do not come across nearly as many people and are much less likely to accept them, and are, as a result, much more likely to want to restrict the freedom of deviants from social norms. The majority is heterosexual, then they want to restrict the rights of homosexuals and bisexuals. The majority is cisgender, then they want to restrict the rights of transgender people. The majority is English-speaking monolinguists, then they want to restrict the rights of non-English speakers and multilingual people. The majority is Christian, then they want to restrict the rights of non-Christians. They haven’t had the exposure so they don’t understand these deviations as being part of one’s liberty, but rather they become fearful of the unknown. It could be men with long hair, women with short hair, people who dye their hair, how flashy someone dresses, or any number of factors.

Certainly, there are rural voters who are in favor of personal liberty while there are urban voters who are heavily bigoted, but when speaking about such large numbers we can only look at trends and general laws of human behavior, not each exception. It is likely that most urban and rural voters would switch if they were to be raised in the other environment because frequency of contact with social deviance in real life is the driving force.

Blue States with low populations also tend to be much physically smaller than the red states with low populations, hosting more of an urban population. Essentially, rural populations have sided with Republicans while urban populations have sided with Democrats, and the electoral college has, by accident, empowered this rural faction over the more populous urban faction. In recent years, it has led to two elections where the person elected President lost the popular vote: in 2000 and 2016.

Much is made of the popular vote wins, though, thanks to the electoral college, we don’t know for sure if the popular vote rendered under the electoral college is a better reflection of the will of the people than the electoral college itself. The reason why is that the popular vote created under the college is a Frankenstein statistic created by adding up disparate elections results together. The election in safe states such as California or Texas is different than the elections in swing states such as Michigan or Florida because many more people tend to show up to vote in swing states where their vote is more likely to influence who wins. We don’t know who stays home: people in agreement who don’t feel urgency or people in opposition who feel defeated. Does that change by state? Are people on one side, the other, or even third party supporters the bulk of who stays home in all safe states on both sides? A popular vote may be quite different if every vote mattered toward the ultimate result of who becomes President by removing those state borders from the vote creating a single district. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton may have won the popular vote by more, or less, or even lost it without the electoral college in play. Supporters of both major parties may assume that removing the college will benefit Democrats if the electoral college is removed, but they don’t actually know that.

One big issue at hand is that third party voters are much more likely to exist in safe states than in swing states. Voters in California or Texas feel they already know who is going to win their states and getting a high third party turnout doesn’t play into the lesser evil game. While it has been shown that third party voters don’t all go to one party or another, such as a study in 2006 that found that only, at most, 60% of Ralph Nader’s voters would have voted for Gore in a two person election while 40% would have voted for Bush, Libertarians have outperformed the Greens in recent elections and they are presumed to have had a bias toward Trump if forced into a two person election, or if it mattered more whether they voted for the Democrat or the Republican.

For decades, it has been argued by small state advocates that if we did away with the Senate or the electoral college that rural votes wouldn’t matter at all anymore because elections would simply be decided by the more populous cities and urban areas would dominate the legislature. Of course, this makes the fundamental logical flaw of assuming that cities vote as a block. However, just looking at a couple of counties that make up New York City: Brooklyn went 74.1% for Joe Biden while 25.2% went for Donald Trump; Queens went 69% to 30.3%; Manhattan went 84.5% to 14.5%. A city considered to be the epitome of a Democratic stronghold has a significant Republican electorate. Urban areas will not automatically determine elections over the complaints of rural areas. If there were an election where they did, you would expect the losing party to move enough toward the unique demands of the urban areas in the next election so that it became competitive again.

It has also been argued that candidates would only campaign in urban areas where they will be able to reach more voters and ignore the rural areas. However, most rural areas are ignored now in electioneering: a safe state like Wyoming or Montana haven’t traditionally been courted strongly by candidates because the electoral college makes a few swayed votes in those states meaningless. Rather, they’ve focused on swing states and they tend to hold their rallies in the urban, or at least suburban, areas of swing states to draw in larger crowds.

The abolition of the electoral college would result in a clearly more representative result than we have under the college. However, that is only the tip of our problem.

The Downside of Abolishing the Electoral College

Abolishing the electoral college would solve one problem with our democracy, but it will likely make another problem worse: the duopoly of the Democratic and Republican parties. As previously stated: swing states make third party voters less susceptible to the lesser of two evils mentality; people vote their conscience more often when they feel they can express their beliefs, as a form of political speech through their vote, when they don’t worry that they may just cause a marginally worse overall result from that speech. Abolishing the electoral college would be devastating to third parties who rely upon a presidential candidate to deliver their message and seek to replace one of the other parties.

Due to what has come to be known as DuVerger’s Law, first past the post electoral systems, like ours, which provide the victory to the candidate that gets the plurality of votes in a district, causes political support to rally to two major political parties, at least on the local level. In the United States it is the Democratic and Republican parties across the board, but Canada, which also has a first past the post system, has more than two major political parties nationally, but only two in any given province. Bloc Québecois is a major force in Québec, but not to be seen elswhere in the country. Any third party is at an extreme disadvantage until it suddenly overtakes one of the two major parties and effectively replaces it. Those chances are significantly hampered by the elimination of safe states.

Why does this matter? Because the American people are not represented by the Democrats and Republicans. They differ on social issues, but both parties serve the same economic minority faction: the bourgeoisie, or the 1% as Bernie Sanders likes to put it. A 2014 study found that, between 1981, when they began measuring, and 2002, decisions made by our government were almost perfectly aligned with the wishes of this small minority at any given time. Sometimes this aligned with what the rest of us wanted, and sometimes not, but we were irrelevant to what was decided. This remained no matter who controlled the House, Senate, Presidency, or even all three as the Republicans had for a bit in 2001.

As recently as October 2018, it has been found that 57% of Americans want a major third party – some party that isn’t the Democrats or Republicans. Gallup says it has held steady since 2013 and They show polling results back to 2003, which was also the low point and still 40% of people wanted a third party, presumably feeling unrepresented by the two major parties. Of course, they have the power to make this happen, but, election after election, they don’t.

In 2016, 57% of Trump’s voters and 54% of Clinton’s voters stated that they voted for their candidate primarily to stop the other, not because they liked who they voted for. In 2020, these percentages were lower, but still significant; 44% of Biden’s voters primarily voted against Trump while 22% of Trump’s voters voted primarily against Biden. It cannot be said that Americans even feel represented by the two major parties, and it is a crisis of legitimacy.

However, more fundamental change to the American electoral system can resolve this problem. If the system is further altered to be designed to address factions rather than pretending they do not and will not exist, then the threat to third parties is removed and the system becomes immensely more democratic.

Proportional Representation

Used throughout the world, proportional representation allows for people of all sorts of political persuasions to be represented in the legislature. Our current system uses what are called single seat districts: candidates of various parties run in small districts where there is a single winner. You can have runoff votes between the biggest winners, but generally the victory goes to whomever wins the plurality. The result of the system is that DuVerger’s Law comes into effect, and people tend to sell out their beliefs in trying to game the system to give them what they see as the less harmful result rather than the one that they desire.

Proportional representation introduces multiple seat districts: candidates of various parties run in larger districts that hand out seats in proportion to how people vote. The ideal is to have one district for the entire legislature, though some countries do use multiple districts to try to give voters people who are theoretically representing their local needs.  However, fewer seats can lead to the lesser evil effect: if there are only three seats available in the district, the question for a third party voter is whether their candidate will get a third of the vote, or close enough, following the rules, that they will get a seat rather than the “greater evil” getting two.  That is why, especially in America, a single district is ideal.

Candidates are assigned seats based upon the percentage of the vote that they get.  If there are 435 seats available, as there is in the US House currently, and a party gets 15% of the vote, they should get 15% of the seats, which is ~65 seats. In the current system you would expect such a party to get no seats at all, leaving the 15% of the the population that supports that set of ideas completely unrepresented.  With proportional representation, a party would have to garner less than half the percentage that a seat represents, normally, to not get a seat in the legislature.  Of course, some systems state that they won’t give any seats to any party who gets less than a certain percentage, but that is not requisite.  Keeping the 435 seats, any party that got .23% of the vote would be guaranteed a seat and any party that got .12% would likely be seated.  It removes the plague of gaming your vote out of fear of the greater evil – it’s very easy to get at least one seat in the legislature and not empower what you consider to be the greater evil.

It also resolves the issue of gerrymandering: where politicians in power alter the lines of districts to increase the chance of their party winning seats.  It is easy for a party that has a minority of support of the total population to get the majority of seats if they draw the lines, ensuring that they lose big when they lose and win narrowly when they win, giving them an unrepresentative amount of representation.  In order to gerrymander, you need at least two districts – which would give a party that should get one seat both seats – and when a state has 53, like California does, it is easy for computers to maximize the wins for the party in control.  If you have only one district, like all the small states with three electoral votes do (they only have one house district), there are no lines to draw to your benefit.  If you place the entire country under one district, then it becomes impossible to gerrymander.  Multiple multiseat districts are harder to gerrymander, but still can be gerrymandered, with increasing effectiveness the fewer seats each district contains.

The so-called “spoiler effect,” which is the effect that parties that are viewed as incapable of getting a seat altering the ultimate results of how seats are handed out, is also greatly diminished.  A party that might win one seat that splits might see its two constituent parties win no seats or a party that might win three seats that splits might see its constituent parties win two seats between the two, but there is very little threat of any spoilers with proportional representation with sufficient seats in its district(s).

What this does diminish that exists, in theory, in our current system are two things: local representation and voting based on individual candidates.  As to local representation, that is something that is something that presumes that we have disparate desires across the nation: that people in Ohio and people in Nebraska have wildly different desires and needs and consider themselves primarily Ohioans and Nebraskans, rather than Americans.  This would have been true in 1789 – but it is not at all representative of Americans today.  Also, should some region feel neglected by existing parties, a party for that region, like the Bloc Québecois, could easily be formed to address their feelings of not being represented.  As to the voting on individual candidates, this would be an issue mainly for swing voters – a group of people who more or less no longer exist in any significant numbers.  Certainly, for people who can rally behind a slogan like “Vote Blue No Matter Who,” party identity completely trumps the individual.  What about the idea of the primary, where people may be concerned over whether they want someone like Joe Biden or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to represent you?  Well, as she stated in an interview, they would not be in the same party.  So you would still be able to make that distinction with your vote.

Instant Runoff Voting

Maine was the first state to introduce Instant Runoff Voting, also known as Ranked Choice Voting.  The idea is simple, though few voters seem to have utilized it the first time around.  Major media outlets are reporting final round totals rather than all rounds, obscuring the results.  Each voter ranks each choice as their first, second, third, etc choice in the election, up to all but one candidate – their least favored candidate or greatest evil.  You don’t have to rank each candidate, but you are allowed to do so.  You cast your vote for your favorite candidate, followed by your second favorite, and so on.

The voter only fills out one ballot at a single time, but there are rounds of voting based upon the results.  In the first round, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and if a voter chose them as their favorite candidate then their votes are then redistributed to their second favorite.  If no candidate yet has a majority of votes, the remaining candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their voters’ votes are redistributed to their next valid, favorite candidate.  This cycle continues until one candidate ends up with a majority of votes.

The benefit to the voter is immense – unless you choose to disempower yourself, you get to vote for whomever you wish without fear of throwing away your vote so long as you complete all your choices.  The only way to throw away your vote is if you choose to fill out the ballot partially and all the candidates you did rank get eliminated.  So, if you want to see Howie Hawkins as the next President of the United States but you don’t think he will have the support to win, then you can vote for Howie Hawkins as your first choice and then vote for Joe Biden as your second choice if he loses.  Or, you could vote for Howie Hawkins as your first choice and Jo Jorgensen as your second choice and Joe Biden as your third choice in case they both are eliminated.

While this doesn’t do much to deal with media access for third parties so that voters know what they stand for and might follow them, it does shut down any voter concerns that a candidate “cannot win.”  It also gives a much clearer picture of what voters were voting for – if a candidate is knocked out with 20% of the vote, then we know what kind of support they actually have and if voters understand the power put in their hands they can make a real statement.  If Joe Biden had 30% of the vote and 23.1% of his final tally came from people who supported Howie Hawkins as their first choice, he would likely be more responsive to their concerns, worried that he or another Democrat might lose to the Greens in 2024.

There is even a version of this for multiseat districts called the Single Transferrable Vote – though it tends to be used only to simulate a primary in multi-district systems.  It could be used to handle minor parties that did not garner enough votes to gain a seat, however.

Leveraging the Electoral College for Meaningful Change

While this doesn’t address issues such as media access or ballot access, this should be the bare minimum for any third party supporter to support any Democratic Party attempt to replace the electoral college.  Why?  Because you cannot enact change without leverage and the moment the electoral college disappears you lose any and all leverage over Democrats to get at least one party to offer these basic democratic reforms.  The two major parties do not want any challenge to their power, and these reforms would absolutely be such a challenge.

There is not much you or I can do directly to affect this, but even getting these reforms into the discussion can radically change the national discussion around the issue and potentially lead to results.  They must create an illusion of being concerned with democracy and so have to address the issue.  Democratic voters may come to support these same reforms which may lead to an actual movement in the streets that threatens the status quo enough to force them to deliver our democratic rights and scramble for a new way to fool us.  For once, it is time for the people to coopt the movement of the elites to enact positive change rather than neutralizing it.

The legitimacy of our electoral system is laid bare and shedding light upon it can create an actual situation where people get motivated, take to the streets, and threaten the entire system if our demands are not met.  It is only when they fear the collapse of their system of oppression altogether where they give any concessions of consequence.

This work is unpaid because this is not a for-profit site.  If you want to help support this work and more like it in the future, please consider becoming a patron of mine on Patreon on my page.  Funds will not only help me transition to writing full-time but will allow me to purchase professional images for the articles.

 

 

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