Ah, what a great time of year. You drive to the polls, collect your “I voted” sticker and let your voice be heard. What a great day for democracy to have your voice be equally represented, but does that really happen? You hurry to the polls to vote for candidate X, but your favorite candidate never receives your vote, in fact no presidential candidate does. So who receives your vote? In reality your vote goes to unnamed and unknown electors who actually choose the president. Welcome to American democracy.
Before we explore the issues with our current system, let’s first look at how it currently works. Every four years in November millions of Americans head to the polls in the states they live in, and they vote for the presidential candidate they wish to elect. Every state then individually tallies popular vote within their state, which in turn chooses the electors which will represent each state and vote for the presidential candidate in December. The first candidate to reach 270 out of the possible 538 electoral votes becomes president.
But that doesn’t sound too bad. It may be an unneeded step in electing a president, but at least the electors will vote the way the majority of your state has, right?
Well, for the most part that has been the case, but no elector is legally bound to their vote, so in reality they don’t have to. In fact there have been 158 incidents in American elections where an elector has voted against what their state had chosen them to vote, a much larger number than there should be; a number which should be zero in a country which prides itself on handing the power over to the people.
But does any of this really matter? Can the Electoral College actually influence the election results?
Of course it can, and it has. Four times in American elections the candidate America had supported actually lost the Electoral vote and didn’t become president. While four may not seem like a large number, take in account there have only been fifty-seven presidential elections, so this issue has happened over seven percent of the time. Seven percent of presidential elections end up with the wrong results. Seven percent of the time the wrong man has sat in the Oval Office. Nervous yet? I know I am.
So how does this happen? How do the Electoral College results differ so frequently to the popular vote of the American people? Well for starters electoral votes are not distributed to states solely on population. It grants every state two starting votes, and a third or more based on population. So if there was a state with only ten citizens; however unlikely that may be; that state would still receive three of the 538 electoral votes, or .56% of the electoral vote. For a more realistic example we’ll look at Wyoming. With less than .18% of the population, Wyoming still receives .56% of the electoral votes, making their vote over three times as powerful over the average vote. So where does the extra power come from? Larger states, of course. States like Texas, New York, and California lose power in their vote as smaller states like Wyoming take it from them. California, for example, has 11.91% of the population, but with only 55 electoral votes their voting power is just over 10%, causing their vote to only be worth 86% as powerful as the average state. Isn’t it so nice to be equally represented?
Sadly, this is not the only problem with the Electoral College which factors into differences between electoral votes and popular vote. The entire “winner takes all” principle is flawed. As unlikely as it may be, a candidate can lose multiple states without winning a single popular vote, but win in other states by a single vote. Win enough states in the states with more “voting weight” like Wyoming and it is possible to win an election even though three quarters of the country voted for a different candidate.
The Electoral College complicates even more when you add in third party candidates. Want to see how it’s possible to become president without public support in the election?
Well, you are a terrible politician, but the House of Representatives loves you. Your terrible speeches and poor views on America have swayed America’s attention away from the terrible job that Congress is currently doing. They want to see you in power, but they are the only people that do. You are a third party candidate without any chance to win, but wait, the Democrat and Republican candidates just tied. One of the two main candidates clearly won the popular vote, but each candidate has received 269 electoral votes, exactly half. So you would assume the winner of the popular vote would win in this situation, but you’d be wrong. The three top candidates according to popular vote remain in contention to become president. You are one of only three candidates this year, so congratulations, even though America hates you, your parents still voted for you, allowing you to remain in contention to become president. So who chooses between these three candidates? The House of Representatives now have complete control over who becomes president. Remember how good you make the Congress look? Congratulations, they vote for you by a landslide. However unlikely this situation may be, the fact that this is even possible is a serious issue which needs to be addressed and fixed.
But without the Electoral College, candidates would only focus on larger states. Presidential candidates would only focus on the states with the largest populations, and discard the smaller states. The Electoral College protects the interests of the smaller states, forcing candidates to campaign to every state, right?
While it is impossible to know how candidates would campaign in a popular vote electoral system, one thing is clear; the Electoral College doesn’t cause candidates to evenly distribute their interests and campaigning, it actually does the complete opposite. Instead of causing candidates to campaign everywhere equally, candidates focus solely on a few, “more important” swing states. Sounds fair, doesn’t it?
But why would any candidate do this? A candidate needs much more than just those few states to win an election; they need the support from America.
Well, with the Electoral College a candidate doesn’t care if he or she wins 100% of the state’s vote or one vote more than their opponent, because that doesn’t affect the outcome of the overall electoral vote. The only votes that matter to them is the 50.1% they need to secure each state. I’m sorry 49.9% of every states’ population, but I guess your votes actually don’t count. All of this means a candidate doesn’t need to worry about states they have overwhelming support in, or underwhelming support in. Instead, they need to only receive one more vote than their opponent in key states. This causes them to solely focus on the states that have control of the election, none of which are the small states.
It is important to remember why we have elections in the first place. That reason is so that everyone in the country has a voice and can be equally heard, however, the Electoral College does just the opposite, shifting more power in the hands of certain citizens and opens the door to potential devastating errors. So remember next presidential election, every vote counts, assuming you’re from a swing state. Ah, American democracy.
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