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Why The Electoral College Doesn’t Work - Opinion Piece

The Electoral college is the system that elects the President of the United States every four years, and has been the system in place since the founding of the country.

In recent decades, we’ve seen this system break and produce results that contradict the will of the people. This article will go through the history of the U.S election process and its more broken implications today.

History of the Electoral College

When the U.S government set up its constitution back in 1787, it wrote into law Article II, Section 1, Clause II which states how many electors each state is entitled to have.

With a total of 538 total electors since 1964 and a minimum of 270 needed to win the presidency, it begs the question, is this system truly democratic? The answer is, no. America is more of a constitutional republic than a conventional democracy.

The difference is, a constitutional republic is when a nation decides on its laws in two different ways, a directly democratic process (mostly local), and by democratically elected representatives (mostly federal), says UCLA School of Law professor Eugene Volokh. The number of electors was decided by taking the total voting membership of the U.S congress; 435 representatives, 100 senators and 3 electors from the district of Columbia, and then allocating them to each state depending on how many representatives each state has in congress, and the number of representatives is based of state population size. So, when you’re voting, you’re voting for your states delegates, and if your state votes even 1% more towards either candidate, all the states electoral votes go towards that candidate.

That’s why in California for example over 4 million people voted for Trump in the 2016 election, more than any other state excluding Texas and Florida, but all of California’s electoral votes went to Hillary as she got over 8 million votes gaining all of its 55 electoral votes. For example, let’s take Texas and Vermont. Texas has a population of over 25 million, while Vermont has a population of 630,000. Texas has 36 representatives in congress, while Vermont only has 1. Therefore, a representative in both states represents roughly the same amount of people (Texas: 702,000 – Vermont: 630,000). Adding the 2 votes they both gain from their two senators, Texas has 38 votes while Vermont has 3. But this combination makes the number of people each delegate represent way different between states. So, in Texas one electoral delegate represents 3 times the amount of people as 1 in Vermont, and that makes each individual person’s vote in Vermont more influential.

With a goal of 270 to win the presidency, every electoral vote matters. That is why you might hear the term “Swing State” thrown around a lot during an election period. A Swing State is a state that historically has not been seen to vote for either party consistently, and swings from one party to the other. The Swing states or otherwise known as battleground states are some of the most fought over states as they usually determine the outcome of an election.

That’s why in 2016, Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign once in California, as it was known that she’d win there without a hitch. Just the same as how Trump only campaigned in Texas once, he knew that the outcome of the vote there would definitely favour him. But they both visited and campaigned in the swing state of Florida over 30 times. That’s because Florida is one of the most important swing states, with 29 electoral votes and a history of switching sides during elections. Voting for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and then for Trump in 2016 and 2020. The electoral college gives uneven powers to voters in these swing states, that’s why a study found that a voter in Michigan had 51 times the voting power as a voter from Utah in the 2016 election. Swing states like these only ever matter and come up on a national scale during an election, but they are the ones deciding elections.

Why was the Electoral College created?

So, why does the U.S use this system, why not just become a more conventional democracy like many other countries and let the popular vote decide? The first reason is that the electoral college was put into place to protect smaller states such as Rhode Island, Delaware, and Connecticut from being ignored by possible presidential nominees. As stated before, since electoral votes are based on population, these states, while not having many electoral votes, have major voting power usually being swing states, so even states like these with small populations could influence an election. This view was popularised in ancient Greece by philosopher Sacrates who saw democracy in a hughley pessimistic way. He often compared the ruling of a county to the sailing of a ship, and proposed to people that if they were to take a trip by sea, who would they rather take control? Any random person? Or captains educated in the demands and complexities of seafaring? Socrates expanded by saying that voting in an election is not a random intuition that everybody has, rather it is a skill that is learnt. Much like with any skill, he thought that it must be taught thoroughly in the education system.The final reason being that history isn’t always as simple and tidy as it appears to be, and that is because when the constitution was written, all original 13 states all had to agree on what was written into law, and there was one big problem with that. The Southern states had major slave populations that didn't count towards voting population size as they didn’t count as free citizens, in comparison to the north which was mainly white and anti-slavery.

This is why experts such as Yale constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar argued that the electoral college was created as a concession to give a chance to southern slave owning states to influence the presidency, because such a large majority of the population in the south were slaves who couldn’t vote. In an electoral system, the voters wouldn’t matter, only the electoral votes would, which is based on population size. The southern states were incredibly worried that they would be outvoted in every election because of this, and so demanded that slaves be counted towards the population. In the end as a compromise they came to an agreement, it was called the three fifths clause. It stated that slaves would be counted in the population towards electoral votes, but only three fifths of what a white free man would be.

That is why in 1800 a northern state like Penssylvania and a southern state like Virginia which had similar numbers of free people living in them (601,000 – 539,000 respectively) had vastly different electoral votes, because Virginia had a far larger slave population (347,000) compared to Pennsylvania (1,700), giving Virginia 6 more electoral votes (Virginia -21 / Pennsylvania -15). That is why eight of the first nine presidential elections in America were won by a candidate from Virginia, which was one of the most populous states in the 1800’s thanks to its huge slave population that raised its electoral vote count. A study found that a majority of Americans don’t like how the electoral system is set up, and would like a change in how elections happen, and many now in the Political arena are also speaking out about.

The electoral college always has and always will give more power to some, and less to others, and those most staunchly in defending it, always seem to be the ones benefiting from it the most. So in these times of voter suppression and misinformation, you must ask yourself. Does your vote really matter?

Because it should.

Edited by Chloe Mansola

Image "2012 meeting of the electoral college and reception" by Maryland GovPics is licenced under CC BY 4.0 DEED

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