Has the Electoral College become a threat for the US democracy? Should it be eliminated by 2016 elections? or is it just seen unconstitutional by the founding fathers.

It is a natural component of political debates to discuss how an electoral process could be improved in order to become more democratic and to reflect the will of the people more democratically. It is an entirely different thing to claim that the electoral system of one country is inherently undemocratic and constructed in such a way as to deliberately prevent the will of the people from expressing itself fully. Objections to the way in which the American electoral system works, particularly to the institution of Electoral College, have been made virtually since the day of signing of the Constitution by the Founding Fathers. However, with the election of George Bush in 2000, and a charge for a massive electoral fraud that could not be carried out if there were not for the Electoral College (Parenti). All of this calls into question the justifiability of this institution. By considering empirical data, it can easily be shown that the Electoral College has become a threat for the US democracy as it creates unjustified discrepancies in the significance of votes in individual states, it undermines the voting rights of minorities and stands as an unnecessary obstacle towards genuine expression of the will of the citizens.

At the outset of the discussion of the political effects of having the institution of Electoral College, it is important to explicate exactly what the notion of Electoral College presupposes and the way in which this institution functions in American political process. Section II of the United States Constitution determines that the President of the United States should be elected through the electoral body called the Electoral College. The citizens of each state vote for a list of Electors or the candidates for the people who will actually vote for the President (US Electoral College). The number of Electors that each state will have equals the number of Representatives that it sends to the Congress and the number of Senators. This makes the total number of Electors in the Electoral College 538. Presidential candidates need to amass 270 votes from electors to enter the White House. The fact that the citizens vote for one list of electors who represent one candidate means that the list with the largest number of votes in one state will actually give all the votes of that state to one presidential candidate thus effectively nullifying the votes that were given to the other candidate or candidates in that state. What happens as a result of this fact is that several states become the battle ground on which the elections are decided. These states are called “swing states” because the candidate who wins those states usually wins the elections. The reason why that is the case is because most of the states traditionally vote for one party so Southern states usually vote Republican and Northern states usually vote democratic. Therefore, the candidate who wins the swing states – those states in which the outcome of the election is always not that easily predictable, wins the election.

The disputes around Electoral College have a long history and its critics have launched some very powerful arguments that call for its abolition. As early as in 1968, Banzhaf (1968) pointed out that due to the existence of Electoral College the significance of votes in various states is not nearly as equal as it should be. By using a computer analysis he calculated the significance of one vote in all major states. The significance was measured by the likelihood that the vote will actually have an effect on the outcome. So for instance, in all Republican states that have voted Republican on every election for the past 50 years, voting either Democrat or Republican has virtually no impact on the outcome. However, voting Democrat or Republican in Florida, which is one of the most significant swing states, has a much greater chances of influencing the outcome of the entire election. By completing this analysis, Banzhaf (1968) has shown that one vote in a swing states can be worth as much as 3.312 votes in other states due to the way in which the Electoral College is structured.The Signing of the Constitution of the United States -September 17, 1787

As far as more recent calculations are concerned, Gelman et al (2012) did a study in which they tried to calculate the level of probability that an individual’s      vote will determine the election outcome. They postulated that this probability can be determined by multiplying the probability of the individual’s state  being  the decisive state and the chance of one individual vote having an impact on the outcome of the election in that state. The results of the study were  truly  devastating. Votes of individuals in some states counted almost 6 times as much as votes of average persons, while people in some states had several  times  lower influence than that of an average citizen. This study shows that today, the situation is not in any way better than it was 50 years ago.

The central objection that is leveled against the institutions of Electoral College is that it conflicts with democratic principles. Many authors including Banzhaf (1968) have advocated the abolition of Electoral College precisely on those grounds. Edwards (2004) described Electoral College as an instrument on the part of the power elites to suppress the power of democracy while still maintaining the formal character of a democratic process. In other words, the Electoral College is a covert way of nullifying, or at least substantially decreasing, the democratic power that comes with choosing the state officials through an election.

Next, some authors have offered historical claims that call into question the purpose of the Electoral College. Finkelman (2001) has argued that the Constitution made room for the Electoral College as a part of the political compromise with the Southern States. Southern States, according to Finkleman (2001), insisted on making it a part of the Constitution because they saw it as a means of defense against the Northern agenda to abolish slavery. They though that the consistency in voting of the people in Southern States will give them greater power in the political struggle with the North.

It can also be argued that the Electoral College is of the past and it is not appropriate for a modern democracy. For Pierce and Longley (1981) it is clear that the American society has undergone a tremendous transformation from a rural and developing country to the greatest industrial superpower in the world with a large urban population. This kind of transformation should oblige the society to examine its political tradition and do away with the practices that are no longer appropriate as they do not fit the transformed character of the country. The Electoral College is, according to them, the prime example of an outdate form of political organization that is no longer compatible with a highly industrialized and urbanized country. They also cite Banzhaf’s calculation to point out that it is obscene to have one nation in which some people’s voice is three thousand times more powerful than that of others. As an additional problem, Pierce and Longley (1981) stress that this kind of electoral process silences the voices of precisely those people whose voices need to be heard if the society is to be transformed in a progressive way. African-Americans and Native Americans are disproportionately settled in states in which a vote does not have much impact on the outcome. This fact alone should be enough to consider the dissolution of the Electoral College.

The popular preference for Electoral College reform is conditioned upon the perception whether or not the reform will make the individual’s vote more powerful. A survey conducted by Aldrich et al (2013) suggests that Electoral College reform is preferred only by those people whose votes are made purposeless. A person voting Democratic in an all Republican state will probably be in favor of abolishing the institution of the Electoral College while their Republican neighbor will not. This fact shows that there is little concern for establishing a real democratic process, and the popular opinion is mostly influenced by the desire to maximize one’s own power and influence even on the smallest scale. Despite the fact that the desire to maximize the significance of one’s own vote may influence the willingness to reform the Electoral College, it still does not mean that overall there is not democratic readiness to make such a move.

The advocates of the Electoral College have also provided arguments why it should remain in place. As a rule, these arguments come mostly from conservative politicians and commentators who cite the Constitution as the greatest authority. Diamond (1977) does just that. He states that every move towards changing the constitution is a dangerous step into the unknown that could lead to unexpected consequences. However, this argument cannot withstand a more serious historical analysis. As the history of amendments to the Constitution has shown virtually every amendment brought about more liberty and helped the society to progress. Next, Diamond (1977) also relates the attempt to abolish the Electoral College with the current that strives to increase the power of the president by citing the fact that the same groups who supported Roosevelt in his abuse of Presidential power through the New Deal are urging for the abolition of the Electoral College. This kind of argument is also not enough to persuasive as the rejection of a position based on the other views held by the group that advocates it without considering the logic of the position and its potential consequences amounts to an ad hominem argument. The call for more democracy in the process of electing the President and elimination of barriers towards the expression of popular opinion is certainly a democratic and emancipatory step.

In conclusion, the Electoral College should be abandoned and the election process should be reconfigured in a way that accommodates for more direct expression of popular opinion. The fact that votes in some states are several times more important than votes in other states is clearly a sign that there are serious impediments to democracy in the US. Also, as it has been shown, the Electoral College is inherently pointless to minorities as their votes are routinely nullified in the process of electing a President. As a relic of the past, the Electoral College should be considered an outdated concept and the authority of the Constitution should not be an impediment towards improving the American society as the tradition of Constitutional Amendments has consistently shown. The desire to prevent fiascos such as the affair of the Elections in 2000 should be enough of a motivation to carry out the long pending reform.

 

 

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Aldrich, John, Jason Reifler, and Michael C. Munger. “Sophisticated and myopic? Citizen preferences for Electoral College reform.” Public Choice (2013): 1-18.

Banzhaf iII, John F. “One man, 3.312 votes: a mathematical analysis of the Electoral College.” Vill. L. Rev. 13 (1968): 304.

Diamond, Martin. The Electoral College and the American idea of democracy. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1977.

Edwards, George C.. Why the electoral college is bad for America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. Print.

Finkelman, Paul. “Proslavery Origins of the Electoral College, The.” Cardozo L. Rev. 23 (2001): 1145.

Gelman, Andrew, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin. “What is the probability your vote will make a difference?.” Economic Inquiry 50.2 (2012): 321-326.

Parenti, Michael . “The Stolen Presidential Elections.” The Stolen Presidential Elections. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. <http://www.michaelparenti.org/stolenelections.html>.

Peirce, Neal R., and Lawrence D. Longley. The people’s President: the electoral college in American history and the direct vote alternative. Rev. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981. Print.

“U. S. Electoral College: Presidential Election Laws.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2014. <http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/provisions.html>

3 Comments »

  1. Susan Anthony

    March 7, 2014 @ 01:00

    1

    The National Popular Vote bill is 50.4% of the way necessary to go into effect.

    To abolish the Electoral College would need a constitutional amendment, and could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population.

    Instead, by state laws, without changing anything in the Constitution, The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by replacing state winner-take-all laws.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps pre-determining the outcome. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80% of the states that now are just ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of Electoral College votes—that is, enough to elect a President (270 of 538). The candidate receiving the most popular votes from all 50 states (and DC) would get all the 270+ electoral votes of the enacting states.

    The presidential election system, using the 48 state winner-take-all method or district winner method of awarding electoral votes, that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founders. It is the product of decades of evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founders in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. States can, and frequently have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years. Historically, major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided).
    Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls
    in recent or past closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA –75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%;
    in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%;
    in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and
    in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%.
    Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 33 state legislative chambers in 22 rural, small, medium, and large states with 250 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 10 jurisdictions with 136 electoral votes – 50.4% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    NationalPopularVote
    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

  2. Thomas K

    March 9, 2014 @ 04:54

    2

    Very well written article. Thanks for the elaboration.

  3. Maigrir

    March 28, 2014 @ 16:10

    3

    Thank you very much for your argument and what you put forward on schooling.
    I sincerely hope that this will move things forward.

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