Electoral College Dysfunction

Now that all the votes are counted in the 2016 Presidential election,  the losing candidate received almost 3 million more votes than the candidate declared the victor. At final count, 2,864,974 more people voted for a candidate who will not be President. This shouldn’t happen in a democracy, however as enlightened minds will tell you, the United States of America is not a democracy. It is instead, a republic. Rather than mince words, let’s look at what that means in practice. The people of the United States vote to elect representatives to speak for them on political matters at all levels of government, from local elections to state representatives and federal representatives. The citizenry entrust these representatives to speak and vote on their behalf. So while we are not a direct democracy, i.e. the citizenry voting directly on bills to possibly become law, we are still a democracy. It’s just a representative form of it.

We the people select our representatives through popular votes. The candidate acquiring a majority of the votes for office assumes that office by the will of the majority of the people. There is one peculiar exception though: the Presidency. The Constitution created an Electoral College to actually select the President of the United States. Like the rest of our representative democracy, the people do not directly select the President, the electors do. Each state has a certain number of them, corresponding with the population of the state and its number of representatives in Congress. We have 535 members of Congress, 100 in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives, and the Constitution was amended to award 3 electors to the District of Columbia. 538 electors in total, which makes the magic number to win the White House 270.

Each state runs their own elections, so in essence, the Presidential election is the sum of 51 unique and separate elections, each with their own rules regarding early voting, mail in voting, mechanism of voting, etc. Two states, Nebraska and Maine, are unique in that they are not winner take all states. In every other state in the union, the winner of the popular vote in the state gets all of the state’s electors. Nebraska and Maine parcel them out based on districts.

This system of electing a President is unique among the world’s democracies, and creates the possibility of a result that is less than a clear voice of the people: a Popular Vote / Electoral College Vote split. We’ve only had a few in our history, but two of them have happened since the year 2000. The election of George W. Bush over his rival Al Gore created just such a split, with the election ultimately being decided by only 537 votes in one state out of 50: Florida. To make matters more muddled, a recount of votes in that state was halted by the Supreme Court of the United States in Bush v Gore, and Bush was declared the victor.  Now, in 2016, in one of the most divisive, ugly campaigns in the history of presidential politics, another Popular Vote / Electoral College Vote split has occurred, and this one is much more dramatic in terms of votes. Consider these facts and figures:

  • Hillary Clinton received 65,844,610 votes; which is 48.2% of all votes cast.
  • Donald Trump received 62,979,636 votes; which is 46.1% of all votes cast.
  • Hillary Clinton received the most votes for any Presidential candidate in history except for one: Barack Obama.

Yet Hillary Clinton is not the nation’s President-Elect. A few more nuggets for you to digest:

  • In Michigan, Donald Trump received 10,704 votes more than Hillary Clinton.
  • In Wisconsin, Donald Trump received 22,748 votes more than Hillary Clinton.

Those 33,452 people decided the national election, for both states pledged all their electors to Donald Trump due to the winner take all rules in the states. So despite the fact that 136,628,459 people voted for President, the election was decided by the equivalent of a half empty football stadium at a meaningless college game.

You may see petitions on social media to Abolish the Electoral College, and you may hear that Senator Boxer of CA just sponsored a bill to do it. However, the Electoral College has its supporters and killing it requires amending the US Constitution. Let’s face it; that’s not going to happen. But there is another way.

Rather than outline the arguments for and against the Electoral College as a reasonable way of deciding the will of the people, I will instead point you to the National Popular Vote website. The site extensively covers the issue of the Electoral College, in writing and with short videos. There’s a free eBook that lays out how the proposed change to our method of electing a President would work. The short version is that this proposal would have each state’s electors pledge their vote to the winner of the national popular vote, rather than the popular vote winner in each state. This is a simple way of addressing the crisis of confidence that occurs when a candidate who was clearly selected by a majority of Americans, as is the case in this 2016 election, does not win the election due to the geographic vote parsing generated by the Electoral College. The site provides all the information you need to familiarize yourself with this proposal and I think once you’ve seen it, it will be difficult to unsee. Consider a few items that really stood out to me as I reviewed the National Popular Vote idea:

  • California, long seen as a bastion of progressive ideas and liberal thinking, a state that the Democratic candidate assumes will fall into their column and Republican candidates ignore as a lost cause, had 4,483,810 votes for Donald Trump! Those people’s voices were not heard, because all of California’s Electoral Votes went to Hillary Clinton. In Georgia, a deep red state in the old south which can be counted on by the Republican candidate, 1,877,963 people voted for Hillary Clinton, but their vote was not heard as the state’s Electors will all vote for Donald Trump.

As the site points out in careful detail, so-called “safe” states are completely ignored by the presidential campaigns as their electors are assumed by the party that traditionally wins them. The battle for the hearts and minds of the people is limited to the swing states; those states that are closely divided ideologically and could “swing” either way. That’s only 13 states out of 50! Even more egregious is that just a handful of those states, due to their population size, demand almost all of the attention as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania decide most elections.

Imagine if you can, an election where every single individual vote matters! If you want to vote Republican in a state like New York, where the Democrat is almost assured a victory, you likely feel you’re wasting your time and energy. Not so with a National Popular Vote decision. If you want to vote for Hillary Clinton in Kansas, you likewise probably feel it isn’t worth your time, and that you don’t matter to the outcome. However, with a National Popular Vote system in place, your vote could literally put the Democratic candidate over the top nationally, even though you reside in a “safe” Republican state.

I hope you will spend some time at the site, get a thorough understanding of it, and then check where your state stands on the issue. Many states have already adopted it, and many more have had the bill sponsored in one or both houses of Congress. Call your representatives and tell them you support the NPV and want to see action taken on the bill.

Make your vote matter, because it should.


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