• William Thompson

The Electoral College: An Impediment to American Democracy?

“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress; but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States shall be appointed an Elector” (United States Constitution)


The electoral framework defined above is known as the Electoral College of the United States. This is a complex process whereby members of each state vote for a candidate known as an “elector”, who, once elected, proceeds to vote for the President and Vice President of the United States. These “electors” are the individuals who will represent each state in the House of Representatives and the Senate.


All states are represented by only two senators each but the number of their House Representatives is contingent upon how many congressional districts are within its borders. For example, California has fifty-three congressional districts which means fifty-three House Representatives plus two Senators, thereby allowing it to have fifty-five votes in the Electoral College. Overall, there are 538 votes available (435 House Representatives, 100 Senators, and 3 votes from Washington D.C.) with the candidate who gains 270 votes winning overall.


As Harvard historian Alex Keyssar identifies in his book, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, this process was created by the founding fathers as a compromise between those individuals who supported a popular vote and those who wished Congress to elect the President. The logic was that it prevented the most populous states from having too great an influence in the presidential election, thereby fostering a more equal outcome and occluding any chance of a tyranny of the majority. However, this process has gained infamy in American politics with more than 700 proposals over the last two centuries seeking to either reform it or eliminate it entirely. This forces one to ask how such a fundamental institution of American democracy could have so much opposition?


The first problem with the Electoral College is that it defiles the democratic principle that all votes are considered equal. In almost every presidential election, the outcome hinges on the electoral votes of a few swing states who continually oscillate in their support for each party. For example, in 2016 Trump gained a quarter of all his Electoral College votes from the votes of just 191,000 individuals across four different states.


The most perplexing consequence of this is that it allows a President to win the election even without winning the popular vote, such as when George Bush beat Al Gore in 2000 and when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016. In such instances, the presidency subverts the democratic idea that a government should represent the will of the people. This is particularly galling considering America proclaims to be a leading light of democracy across the globe.


However, more insidious is the intimate connection between the Electoral College and the discriminatory race relations of the United States for over the last 200 years. Keyssar argues that before the introduction of the 13th Amendment that banned slavery, the Southern States opposed reform of the Electoral College because it gave them a greater influence in presidential elections thanks to the three-fifths clause. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution declared that anyone who is not free is considered “three-fifths” of a person, essentially meaning that, in legal terms, only three-fifths of the enslaved population were considered human. This populational addition to the South allowed for more electoral votes, thus giving Southern Whites a greater influence in Congress.


In addition, despite gaining full citizenship rights under the 14th Amendment, following the Civil War until the mid-twentieth century, the Southern Black population was still denied suffrage. This was perpetuated through to the imposition of literacy tests, poll taxes, and gerrymandering (the redrawing of congressional districts to favour a particular class of people). This meant that remarkably fewer votes were cast in presidential elections in the South than in the North, yet, due to the Electoral College, the South still maintained considerable influence. Hence, they have been resistant to reform.


The closest the US has ever come to replacing the Electoral College was in 1969 when a constitutional amendment passed in the House of Representatives sought to move towards a national popular vote. This amendment was unfortunately denied by the Senate, demonstrating the difficulty in reforming the Electoral College as it is mandated by Article II of the Constitution.


However, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), a movement gaining traction today, seeks to bypass the Constitution. Thanks to Article II of the Constitution, states are given sole authority over how electoral votes should be decided. This was recently reinforced in 2000 with the Supreme Court case Bush V. Gore, which centred upon a dispute over a recount of votes in the state of Florida. As such, states like California, New York, Vermont, and Hawaii pledged to give their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. If enough states join this compact to create a coalition of over 270 electoral votes then the Electoral College is essentially bypassed, and the presidential election turns into a competition for the national popular vote.


However, it is necessary to add that most states are reluctant to reform the method through which they allocate electoral votes, especially if it could mean that their preferred party is less likely to gain office. The way forward for American democracy, therefore, seems to be in doubt, and for some, its democratic system is indicative of a decadent society that is unable to face the challenges of the modern world. Such criticisms can often be rejected as hyperbole but there are some fundamental issues with the democratic process in the United States, of which the Electoral College is the clearest example. If democracy in America is to remain strong then we must find a way to reform such institutions. Yet as of now, such reform seems to be just out of our reach.