The Electoral College was established in 1787 by the Founding Fathers, and it is entrenched in the US Constitution. Whilst its original intentions were democratic and fair, it is now wreaking havoc over US election results, and has at times elected a president with fewer votes than its opponent.
The Electoral College is a confusing system. Here it is summed up.
Each state in America has a certain number of electoral college votes, and whichever candidate reaches half (270), wins the election. The minimum number of electoral college votes (ECVs) is 2, the maximum 55, and the number allocated to each state is decided based on its population. The idea behind this is that small states still have a significant impact, whilst not too much of an impact to render the system undemocratic. In each state, except Maine and Nebraska, the party with the most votes gets all of its electoral college votes, even if that candidate won by a very small majority.
At face value, what can you criticise? It seems to be a well thought out and majoritarian-favouring system.
The first problem is the First-Past-The-Post element, but it is important to point out that the drawbacks discussed are the same as those in the UK, because FPTP works in the same way. It is a winner-takes-all system and takes place within the states, (and in the UK within the constituencies) meaning that whichever candidate has the most votes, is entitled to all of the representation, regardless of whether they win by 1 or by 30,000.
This means that things called safe states arise, where enough of the population consistently votes for one party, and the other party doesn’t have a chance. Take New York for example, which is a Democrat safe state.
With safe states come swing states, and the problem with the whole safe/swing factor is that only voters in swing states can actually make a difference to the election result. Voting Republican in New York, will have zero effect in supporting the Republicans or bringing down the Democrats, whereas voting Reupublican in a swing state such as Ohio will definitely have an impact, because Ohio swings regularly.
Does this not seem ridiculous? In a country of 331 million people, with a constitution that boasts the power of the people, what actually matters is just a few votes?
It is ridiculous.
Under a proportional system, as opposed to First Past The Post, voting Republican in New York, or Democrat in Oklahoma, would have a direct impact on the result of the election, because the outcome of a vote is not impacted by the others around it.
The other problem, which is unique to the US system, is that electoral college votes are no longer allocated proportional to the population size.
Yes, they might have been in 1782, when the Electoral College was established, but the last time it was updated was in 1964, and to give a picture of how much the US population has changed since then, the country is now nearly one and three quarters that size. The fact that this is so out of date is terrible for democracy. There are now states whose votes count considerably more to votes in other states. How has this not been stopped?
In 2016, California had one ECV per 680,000 members of the population, whereas Wyoming had one per 190,000; therefore a vote in Wyoming counts more than a vote in California.
Now, this shows that in theory, the Electoral College is undemocratic, and limits the incentive to vote etc. But one could suggest that it wouldn’t actually cause an election to sway one way or another, that it usually works.
2016 was the year that the Electoral College called the election, not the voters. Clinton got 1 percentage point more than Trump in the popular vote. 48% to 47%. Not only were Trump’s votes less than half of the electorate, he even got fewer votes than his opponent.
This is a major flaw in the system. The fact that Trump won in 2016 is outrageous, and a betrayal of democracy.
When we think of the low voter turnout in the US – 59% in 2016, 55% in 2012 – does having an electoral system that values some votes more than others really seem encouraging to citizens who just don’t think that their vote will matter? Because unfortunately, if they live in a state like California, under the current system, their vote will not have a say.