Undemocratic Electoral College needs overhaul

Caleb Glickman Oct 10, 2016
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Editor’s note: The Pragmatist’s Manifesto is a weekly column that encourages civil discussion about politics in the U.S. Find previous installments @ thetartan.org.

Four weeks ago, I began my four-part series defending the two-party system. As we approach the election, I will discuss a few other related topics that very much need their own columns. To kick things off, we have a doozy this week – the Electoral College.

We mentioned the Electoral College often in our discussion about the two-party system, and it is one of the key parts of that system’s foundation. We will discuss this, why it’s good, why it’s bad, and how it might be changed to better reflect the results of the popular vote.

We hear a lot about the Electoral College during presidential contests, but perhaps some of you have forgotten what you learned about it in 11th grade government. It is established in Article II, Section I of the Constitution.

The Founders set up the Electoral College as a way to prevent direct democracy. Essentially, people are selected in each state to represent the outcome of the election by casting their votes as electors. This is one of many reasons why we say “for the Republic,” in the Pledge of Allegiance and not “for the Democracy.” Except for Nebraska and Maine, the Electors vote in a winner-take-all system, so if someone wins more than 50 percent of a state’s votes, the gets 100 percent of the electoral votes.

This means that 538 people (representing the 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, and three votes for the District of Columbia) are selected to vote, 41 days after the November 8th election, to pick the President. That’s the only vote that matters. There is nothing in the Constitution prohibiting any elector from not voting for the person that the state’s electorate selected. This is called a “faithless elector” and it has happened dozens of times in our history.

In principle, each elector would equally represent a portion of the population. However, the Constitution mandates that each state is allotted three electoral votes and the rest are allotted for population. This means that small states that get three electoral votes, like some of those states in the middle that do not have many people (sorry Wyoming), are overrepresented next to states with larger populations like California, Texas, and New York.

One would think this means small states get more attention, but, sorry small states, they don’t. Neither do big states. Elections come down to ideologically-mixed states we lovingly call “swing states.” (If you are holding this paper, you are living in one.) Candidates nowadays can ignore the states they will win easily and focus their resources on the states that will push their electoral count over 270. Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Iowa are the ones that typically decide which candidate has the edge in the electoral count.

This brings us to one of the main problems with the Electoral College: that someone can win with a minority of the popular vote. Most recently, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in the Electoral College in the 2000 election, even though he lost the popular vote.

This result has happened three other times in our history. In 1824 (deadlocked vote went to Congress), 1876, and 1888, presidential contests resulted in a candidate who lost the vote but won the election. That’s one incorrect result for every 14 elections. For such a consequential position, that is a staggering statistic. According to Business Insider, someone could win the Electoral College with just 22 percent of the popular vote. No, you didn’t misread that. It’s highly unlikely, but a candidate could win the election with 51 percent in only the states that are most overrepresented and no votes in the rest of the states.

Now, if you’re thoroughly upset at this point, I would like to step in with an unpopular counterargument just to make you even angrier. The Electoral College, although outdated and undemocratic, does typically ensure one thing: the winner is usually chosen by electors from all 50 states. It makes sense that the people running for president must appeal to people nationwide. Without the Electoral College, a candidate could appeal to a section of the population that is concentrated in one area and become president, ignoring the interests of the rest of the country.
Still, this does not outweigh the problems with the current system. This leads me to the final part of our discussion: reforms!

But how could we possibly reform such a system, you wonder? To begin with, there is one current proposed reform making its way across the country: The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or NPVIC (it just rolls off the tongue, I know).

NPVIC is a nationwide pact between states that would award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The NPVIC will go into effect nationwide if the number of states that have approved it reaches 270 electoral votes.

Although this is a clever way to basically rid the country of the Electoral College in favor of a popular vote for president, the pact’s chances of success look grim. So far, 10 states and D.C. have signed on, making a hefty sum of 165 electoral votes.

Every single one of these states however, votes extremely Democratic in presidential contests. According to FiveThirtyEight, the 11 signers of the pact are in the group of 14 states that gave President Obama his largest margins of victory in the 2012 election.

As we have seen in previous discussions, Democrats have won the last five of six popular votes, meaning they would be far more willing to make this change. This does not bode well for bi-partisanship.

Still, Gallup polling shows that nationally, 62 percent of people support amending the Constitution in favor of a popular vote for president. Because the NPVIC may not have the easiest path to success, I would like to propose a different potential change to our electoral system that does not often get discussed. My approach would enhance the way our democracy works without having to pass a constitutional amendment: make the Electoral College proportional.

If each state awarded its electoral votes proportionally, we would see a much closer representation of how the country voted. Take, for example, the 2012 election. Obama beat Romney badly in the Electoral College — 332 to 206. While the electoral vote percentage shows a 62 percent to 38 percent rout, Obama beat Romney just 51.1 percent to 47.2 percent in the popular vote.

Arthur Lieber, the Democratic nominee for Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District, imagines a world, imagines a world in which all of the states award proportionally. Obama would have beaten Romney just 276–264, a 51 percent to 49 percent margin that is far more representative of the actual margin of victory. It should be noted this hypothetical doesn’t account for third-party candidates, who could potentially also get electoral votes without having to be a spoiler party.

Still, this model is a clear middle ground. It doesn’t abolish the Electoral College, and it ensures the president will have more nationally-based support. Candidates would no longer be able to focus solely on swing states. Republicans would be motivated to campaign in bluer states, and Democrats would be motivated to campaign in redder ones. Unfortunately, to achieve my reform, all 50 states would have to agree to this radical change. So we will continue to dream.

As we’re stuck with the current Electoral College for the foreseeable future, swing states will continue to wield outsized importance. And that brings us back to you, dear reader. No matter who you vote for, your vote matters a great deal more in Pennsylvania than in another state that is more secure for either major candidate.

Unless you’re already registered in another swing state, I would heavily encourage you to register or re-register to vote here. Tomorrow, Oct. 11, is your last day to register, so you’d better get moving.

If you need motivation, check out Bush’s margin of victory in Florida in 2000. Out of almost six million votes cast, Bush defeated Gore by 537. There are more people than that enrolled in the School of Computer Science.