Everybody’s vote matters
Can America ever reclaim the democratic high ground without abolishing, or at least reforming the electoral college that elects the president?
Developed more than 200 years ago to help protect the wealth and institutions of slavery in the American south , the electoral college continues to distort presidential elections today. Ted Sullivan examines the evidence
There’s no denying that the American presidential election provides the wider world with political drama and inspiration not available in the other superpower states of China and Russia . Unlike presidentials in Moscow or Beijing, we genuinely don’t know who the winner will be.
A great measure of America’s claim to international moral authority is its support for, and adherence to, democratic principles and practices. Even if US economic power and cultural influence are on the wane, the presumptive leader of the free world is still subject to the free, fair and openly expressed will of the people.
At least that’s the theory.
Trump’s election in 2016, and even more controversially George W Bush’s victory in 2000 have shown that America’s claim to democratic pre-eminence by the popular election of its Commander in Chief has a serious flaw. In both of those elections the two winning Republican candidates claimed victory even though more Americans voted for their opponent.
And that of course is down to the electoral college which decides the election, not on the basis of the national popular vote, but on which states the candidate wins in.
In 2000 George W Bush beat Al Gore in Florida by just over 500 votes in the face of a dispute over many votes that were not properly counted. Subsquent investigation indicated those votes would have given Gore victory in Florida, and the White House. There were also credible allegations that Dubya’s brother, Governor Jeb Bush worked to exclude many blacks and Hispanic voters from the electoral roll who most likely would have voted Democrat.
Across the country Gore beat Bush by more than half a million in the popular vote.
And as everyone remembers, and many are fond of repeating, Donald Trump polled almost 3 million votes less than Hillary Clinton across all 50 states in 2016, but won by narrow margins in enough swing states to give him a majority of the electoral college votes, and thus the presidency.
Contrast this with the French presidential where a wide field of candidates run in the first round (Premier Tour). If no one wins a majority, the two candidates polling the highest number of votes go on to the second round. The winner of that round becomes president by gaining more than 50% of the popular vote. The French, and the rest of the world may not approve of the way President Macron runs his country, but no one anywhere can deny the legitimacy of his mandate.
And this disparity is not lost on observers in the most unlikely of places. While on a safari holiday with my wife in Tanzania in 2017 our local guide, Simon, a family man with three teenage children who had never ventured far from his homeland, provided this forthright judgement.
“What kind of advertisement for democracy is a system that allows someone to win who gets almost 3 million votes less than the runner up?”
Simon would be surprised and gratified to know that a distinguished American academic agrees with him.
George Edwards III, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies Emeritus at Texas A&M University gives authoritative voice to the absurdity so obvious to Simon.
Quoted in The Guardian Professor Edwards commented: “The electoral college violates the core tenet of democracy, that all votes count equally and allows the candidate finishing second to win the election. Why hold an election if we do not care who received the most votes?”
In addition there is a dark side to the history of the electoral college: maintaining slavery and the wealthy slave plantations in the south. When the American constitutional convention of 1887 convened in Philadelphia it was decided that allowing the American people to choose their own president directly was a democratic step too far.
This sentiment was due in no small measure to the concerns of slave plantation oners. Although the southern and northern states had roughly the same numbers of people, in the south around 30% of that number were Negro slaves who did not have the vote. Slave owner and future president James Madison outlined his support for the electoral college with that in mind.
“There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.”
In other words, because there would be fewer white voters in the south than in the north, the south would be at an ongoing disadvantage.
Writing in the Atlantic, Professor Wilfred Coddington of the Brooklyn Law School explains the rationale for this electoral mechanism.
“Behind Madison’s statement were the stark facts: The populations in the North and South were approximately equal, but roughly one-third of those living in the South were held in bondage. Because of its considerable, nonvoting slave population, that region would have less clout under a popular-vote system. The ultimate solution was an indirect method of choosing the president…”
This worked in the 1800 election when the southern slaveholder Thomas Jefferson, who came second to incumbent president John Adams (an abolitionist) was able to win the presidency on the strength of the South’s electoral votes.
As Coddrington explains: “To quote Yale Law’s Akhil Reed Amar, the third president ‘metaphorically rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves.’ That election continued an almost uninterrupted trend of southern slaveholders and their doughfaced sympathizers winning the White House that lasted until Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860.”
After the civil war the 1876 election also ended with an electoral college win/popular vote loss for Rutherford B Hayes (by a single electoral vote). He agreed to withdrew Northern troops from the South. Soldiers were stationed in the ex-Confederate states to keep law and order and protect black voters.
This ‘misfire’ ended the short-lived Reconstruction era and enabled white supremacy to be maintained in the southern states. Government authorities and civil society in the south were able to discriminate against blacks, allow lynchings to take place with impunity, and systematically disenfranchise black voters. This Jim Crow era lasted virtually until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Examination of US presidential voting patterns indicates clearly that the electoral college continues to distort the democratic process in many important respects, beyond undermining the principle of one citizen one vote. The distribution of electoral college votes across the states creates dramatic disparities. Recent investigation by The Guardian tells us how.
‘Wyoming has one electoral college vote for every 193,000 people, compared with California’s rate of one electoral vote per 718,000 people. This means that each electoral vote in California (as well as in Texas and Florida) represents over three times as many people as one in Wyoming. ‘
This is compounded by the fact that California, as America’s most populous state, with a population of 39.5 million is only entitled to 55 electoral votes, while 22 other states including Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire with a combined total of 37.8 million have 96 electoral votes, close to twice as many as California.
In any given presidential cycle the electioneering activity and campaign spending is concentrated in the 12 most important swing states. The other 38 are virtually ignored. It is simply not worth a candidate’s time, effort and money to campaign in a state that he won’t lose or can’t win.
A consequence of this is that voter turnout is lower in the majority of US states which are not swing states, like California, New York, Oregon, etc which do not change their loyalty to either Republican or Democratic candidates in any given election.
A study by The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) shows turnout among voters under age 30 was 64.4% in the ten closest battleground/swing states and only 47.6% in the rest of the country — a 17% gap.
Fairvote, the voters’ rights campaigning organisation looked into the 2004 election in which George Bush defeated his Democratic rival John Kerry. They reported that the ‘candidates devoted three-quarters of their peak season campaign resources to just five states, while the other 45 states received very little attention.’ The report also stated that 18 states received no candidate visits and no TV advertising.
This is going on right now as Trump and Biden battle it out in Pennsylvannia and Florida and ignore the most populous states of California, Texas and New York.
Leaving out the majority of states makes good logistical and economic sense, but it hardly can be said to serve the people’s interest.
This rolls over into government spending as well which disproportionately favours “Battleground” states who receive 7% more federal grants than the non-swing states as well as a host of other funding opportunities and advantages.
George Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer was both honest and arrogant about this situation when he spoke to the Washington Post in 2009. “If people don’t like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state and see their president more.”
On his website Joe Biden has laid out an extensive slate of pledges to reform American government so that the abuses of Trump’s term in office cannot be repeated. Biden wants to ensure that anyone running for federal office must make public 10 years of tax returns before going on the ballot. The former vice president also wants to remove large corporate funding from federal politics.
But so far he has shied away from a call for constitutional reform of the electoral college, realising no doubt what a spider’s web/hornet’s nest it will be. He may well hae decided that in his case at least, life is too short to contemplate promoting a constitutional amendment that would involve getting two thirds of Congress to support it, and then require the endorsement of at least 38 state legislatures.
However, outside of the realm of federal politics lies one grassroots campaign that wants to turn the system on its head, by allowing state legislatures to dedicate their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote instead of to the candidate who won in their particular state. That initiative is known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. It’s worth having a browse through their website, nationalpopularvote.com to see how it works and how much progress they have made since setting up in 2006. They also make persuasive arguments against all the leading objections.
NPV was Initiated following decades of frustration at not being able to bring about electoral college reform in Congress. The NPV programme was outlined in a report by the Congressional Research Service published in October 2019.
“Specifically, the plan calls for an agreement among the states, an interstate compact effected through state legislation, in which the legislature in each of the participating states agrees to appoint electors pledged to the candidates who won the nationwide popular vote.
“ State election authorities would count and certify the popular vote in each state, which would be aggregated and certified as the “nationwide popular vote.” The participating state legislatures would then choose the slate of electors pledged to the “nationwide popular vote winner,” notwithstanding the results within their particular states.”
To make sure it would work, this initiative would only be triggered if states with an electoral total of 270(the majority) approve the plan.
I was surprised to learn that several states have already passed legislation to enable NPV to go into operation. At present, 15 states and the District of Columbia, jointly accounting for 196 electoral votes, have ratified the NPV , and legislation is being actively considered by several other states.
It has to be said that all of the states so far who have passed legislation support or lean towards the Democrats. (After all, in 2000 and 2016 it was Republican candidates who benefitted from the anomalies of the electoral college). But the campaign claims that states with at least another 80 votes have legislation on the starting blocks.
A breakthrough will have to be made in a large swing state like Florida or Ohio to carry the initiative over the line. And the Supreme Court might yet rule the initiative as unconstitutional, although the court has been firm in rulings that protect states rights on the issue.
Whatever the outcome of the election, America’s reputation as the beacon of the free world, working effectively in the interests of all its people, remains in the balance. Can an American president any longer look aside at such an electoral distortion, handed down from the days of slavery, and say it represents the best of democracy?
Will it enable him to summon up the national and international support required to prevail against the authoritarian wiles of both the Russian bear and the Chinese dragon?
Whatever happens Simon will be keeping a watchful eye out on the Serengeti. taking note of how and where the American Eagle flies.
Ted Sullivan is a freelance journalist and retired senior lecturer in journalism and public administration at the University of Northampton.