Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Electoral College is Borked

Peter S. K. Lynch

The United States’ Electoral College, approved in 1787, isn’t just antiquated—it’s also a barrier to true democracy.

Many arguments have been made in support of the Electoral College. For those who support it, unfortunately, most of the arguments are irrelevant or just plain flawed. For instance, proponents claim that the Electoral College benefits minorities. They believe that making the votes of each state an all-or-nothing proposition increases the likelihood that these voters will turn out and have the opportunity to make a critical difference in election results, thus necessitating that candidates court a wider variety of voters. This seems reasonable until you look at the issue from alternative angles. Consider this example: 49% (a minority) of voters in a given state might support a particular candidate but, if 51% of the population favors another, the group of 49% receives exactly 0% of the Electoral votes. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Two of the most essential problems are that: the 49% of voters in a given state make no difference on the national level—essentially, in this case, the minorities’ votes count for nothing whatsoever; additionally, when a minority group knows that its vote will amount to nothing whatsoever, that group actually has less incentive to turn out to vote. With a straight popular vote, this is not the case because the minority group will know that they actually can make a difference on the national level.


The most relevant arguments in favor of the Electoral College are that it does the following:
• Prevents urban-centric victories

• Maintains the federal nature of our government

• Makes it easier to detect and ameliorate election fraud.

Unfortunately, for these proponents, the first argument is flawed because the all-or-nothing system actually forces the candidates to focus on large swing states, neglecting the needs of the more rural states. Maintaining the federal nature of the government is a compelling argument, but even this can be destructive. Consider the South. There was a time when black citizens were assigned only 3/5 of a vote apiece.(They weren't actually allowed to vote, but this figure was used to juice up southern states' representation in the Electoral College. This reduction in the weight of their votes makes it possible for state legislators to push through the candidates of their choice (basically, it’s addition by subtraction). This, in turn, reuces the power of its constituents and places an inordinate value on the desires of a few, elite governmental officials. Instead, with universal regulations, the value of the minority vote can be preserved. And the third argument, while certainly valid, isn’t sufficiently relevant to match up with the arguments against the Electoral College.


Relevant arguments against the Electoral College include but are not limited to these facts:

• It devalues the national popular vote
• It gives more weight to voters in less populous states
• It discourages voter turnout
• It is a disadvantage to third parties
• In some states, there is a disincentive to vote at all

When the national popular vote isn’t the deciding factor, candidates are able to appeal to voters on a narrower range of issues. For instance, Vermont’s two votes are unlikely to affect who wins since it has only two Electoral Votes. Swing states—Ohio, Iowa, etc.—get the attention because of this all-or-nothing system, decreasing the representation of the states with fewer votes and those wherein the results can be intuited ahead of time. In this case, the smaller states aren’t the only ones to lose out: if a candidate can count of 51% of California’s vote, it can also count on 55 Electoral votes 10.2% of the national total. The 49%, on the other hand, will receive 0% of the electoral votes. For 2% of California voters to determine 10.2% of the Electoral College’s votes is a travesty. Since 2% of Californians constitute 0.12% of the nation’s population, this gives a single voter in California 415 times as much sway as he/she would have if each voter had the same influence as all the others.

This, in itself, is more than compensates for the arguments in favor of the Electoral College. And that’s just one issue.

While devaluing the national popular vote (which is wrong), the Electoral College also gives an inordinate amount of influence to voters in less populous states. Wyoming, for instance, accounts for 0.2% of our nation’s population, but gets 0.6 percent of its representation (also wrong). And by now, we should know that two wrongs do not make a right.

A logical extension of these two points lead to a third: the discouragement of voter turnout. A democrat living in Texas, for instance, won’t affect the results of the election in any way whatsoever, while, were California a swing state, each citizen therein could have up to 415 times that which he or she would if the election was determined by the national popular vote.

Finally, the Electoral College is a disadvantage to third parties because, in essence, they just plain won’t gather any Electoral votes. This entrenches us in a situation where the two-party system will always be in place. Even if that’s the best system, we the people should at least have the opportunity to make a change if we so desire.


I’ve acknowledged, in just over two pages, the merits of the Electoral College and the overwhelming arguments against it. When a convincing argument against an institution can be made in only a couple of pages, and when the issue at hand has such an influence on the election of our President, it becomes clear that the issue must be addressed and the system reformed. And the continuity of this system is undemocratic, disenfranchising, illogical, and ultimately destructive. This issue deserves far, far more attention than we give it.

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