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Problems with the American Political System Part 1: The Electoral College

(This is the beginning of a new occasional series I’m starting, because it’s around election season and these issues are on my mind a lot. Electoral College will be first because it’s the one that immediately jumps to mind and also because I want to get it out of the way.)

The Electoral College, for you non-Americans out there, is the frankly silly way America elects the President. The Founding Fathers of our country thought they were going to have to balance giving individuals power with giving states power, because back at the time of the revolution the states functioned more-or-less as separate countries. Also, they apparently weren’t very good at math, because the system they came up with to replace good old sensible national popular vote does not make terribly much sense.

Basically, every state gets a number of electors equal to their representation in Congress (since every state gets 2 Senators and at least 1 Representative this means no state can have less than 3). The states pass laws telling their electors how to vote, on whatever criterion they want no matter how silly, and then the electors maybe or maybe don’t vote that way and elect the president on that basis. In practice the vast majority of states (48/50) currently award all their electors to whoever wins the most votes in their state, with two states (Nebraska and Maine) awarding their electors proportionally based on the vote in each congressional district of their states.

This distorts the election in a number of ways, some more theoretical than others. The most obvious sort of distortion is that the person who wins the electoral college doesn’t necessarily have to win the national popular vote, meaning that the candidate that the most people voted for can actually lose the election. Famously, this caused Al Gore to lose an election he actually won because of a miniscule amount of votes in a single state, but if you try you can get some absolutely horrid theoretical electoral maps. The minimum amount of the popular vote you actually need to win an election is actually 22%, with two candidates, which as the narrator of that video says is indefensible in a democracy. (With more than two candidates it would get even worse, up to possibly being able to lose up to 95% of the vote and still win, if the election went particularly horrifically. Sometimes the only thing that stops the American electoral system from being even worse that it is already is that the different ways that it is shitty partially cancel each other out.)

There’s also the problem that the electoral college is biased towards Republican states. Or, rather, it’s biased towards small states, which tend to be overwhelmingly rural, and so tend to be Republican. Someone living in Wyoming has their vote weigh much more than someone from California, because California spreads its 55 votes out among 37 million people while Wyoming’s 3 votes are shared by only about 600,000 people. This means that while it only takes 200,000 Wyomingites to make up 1 electoral vote, it takes about 670000 Californians to make up that same electoral vote (more, I should note, then the ENTIRE POPULATION of Wyoming). In turn that means the Electoral College counts the votes of 1 Wyomingite the same as 3 Californians, which again is an absolutely horrible characteristic of a Democratic system.

Yet another problem is that the Electoral College makes some people’s votes not matter. I know this particularly well as a resident of Illinois; the people from downstate Illinois are overwhelmingly Republican, and while I disagree with them I do not think not counting their votes at all is a defensible option. But that’s what this system does: Chicago’s population is great enough to make Illinois a solid blue state, meaning the Republican votes of most of the state have no chance to influence the election and so those people downstate have no chance to influence the election. Which means that as much as the candidates ignore places like Chicago which are solidly for one party when they campaign, they doubly ignore places like downstate Illinois who cannot possibly influence the election no matter how they vote. And that means that no Presidential candidate will ever make a promise that is relevant to the people living there except by accident; because their issues happen to coincide with issues relevant to people in Ohio or Florida which the candidates actually pay attention to.

Which brings me to the last, and in my opinion most dire problem: the way the electoral college is set up means that the few states with close elections have a stranglehold on the entire political process. I’ve already said why presidential candidates will never promise anything to places like downstate Illinois, but in fact they don’t as a rule promise anything to Illinois, period. Neither candidate expects that Illinois as a state will vote majority Republican so it’s pointless to pick up any votes there. But Ohio or Florida or any state which has very close numbers of Republicans and Democrats along with a large number of undecided voters will have the candidates begging to help it out. This means, for example, that no president will ever ever attack corn subsidies, because many of the “swing states” produce a great deal of corn.

Luckily this issue is one of the easiest to fix, because unlike the others we don’t need a constitutional amendment to fix it. Remember what I said before about how states can allocate their electoral votes any way they want? That means they can allocate their electoral votes based on the national popular vote, instead of the vote inside the state, which would effectively abolish the electoral college if 270 or more electoral votes worth of states do this at the same time. I mention this method even though it sounds like a weird workaround because a lot of states have already agreed to do this, at least if the agreement ever gets to 270 electoral votes. They’re currently at 132 (~49%) right now, and they only started in 2007, so it’s quite possible that this whole crappy system will have been replaced with a much more sensible one sometime before 2016 or 2020.

(NEXT IN THIS SERIES: First Past the Post!)