Nigel Aplin on Electoral College

Electoral College pulling down American democracy

By Nigel Aplin
Contributing Editor
True North Perspective

For the second time in the past 16 years, the winner of the U.S. presidential election received fewer votes than their main opponent. This is possible because of the Electoral College, an arcane institution whose members are the only ones who actually cast votes to choose the president. Electoral College votes are allocated to each state based roughly on population and the actual voters are sent to the Electoral College by each state as a block in favour of one candidate based on the winner of the vote (with two minor exceptions, Nebraska and Maine that each allocate their Electoral College votes proportionally based on the popular vote). Win a state and get all the Electoral College votes for that state regardless of how close the vote was. The Electoral College should be scrapped because it allows outcomes that are unfair, at least based on national popular vote results. Democrats, whose presidential candidates won the popular vote in 2000 and in 2016, but lost the presidency each time, will surely agree.

That’s the obvious reason to abandon the Electoral College. But there are other even more compelling reasons to do so — reasons that have had significant negative impacts on American democracy in each and every presidential election for at least the past several decades. The Founding Fathers, whose actual intentions are the constant subject of speculation, established the Electoral College to give each state a measure of power over how the president is elected. Whatever benefits they saw in establishing the Electoral College 240 years ago and any ability they may have had to foresee consequences of it, like those evident now, can never be known and are irrelevant.

The most important reason to move to a national popular vote as the basis for electing the president is that it would increase voter turnout. The current winner-take-all system amplifies regional differences and distorts state by state results. Take Wyoming, for example, where the Republican candidate received 70% of the popular vote in the recent election, 47.5% more than the Democratic candidate’s 22.5%. Since Wyoming and 47 other states allocate their entire slate of Electoral College votes to the winner, Trump got all of them. A Democrat in Wyoming — a rare breed indeed — would have a strong incentive to stay home on election day, faced with being on the losing side of a 47 point spread that would have to be overcome in order to change the allocation of the state’s Electoral College votes. What’s the point in voting then? A better strategy would be to move to swing state and vote there.

The same problem exists in all but a few states. Republican voters in California can relate. Clinton won the state by a 62% to 33% margin over Trump and she therefore took all 55 Electoral College votes. Same thing with New York State’s 29 votes which all went to Clinton who won the popular vote 59% to 38%. What motivation would Republican voters in these states have to vote, perhaps other than in Senate or House races or for other “down ballot” candidates? Texas is another big state with 38 Electoral College votes which all went to Trump who won the popular vote there by a comfortable 10 points. Stacking the deck like this surely drives voter turnout down, for supporters of each of the two main parties, while a mechanism of choosing a President by way of national popular vote would make each vote count equally regardless of state or region. Wyoming Democrats and California Republicans would have a much clearer motivation to vote — and would surely do so in larger numbers under such a system.

With the outcome all but pre-determined in most states, presidential elections come down to a few “swing” states where each of the main parties enjoys a solid base of support with independent voters determining the outcome election by election. The candidates and their campaigns therefore focus almost entirely on this handful of states and virtually ignore the others, especially in the critical post-Labour Day period. In close elections, they and their main surrogates spend almost all of their campaign time in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida. Television advertising budgets are also mostly allocated to these states. Under the current system, no other strategy makes sense.

Imagine how much different presidential campaigns would be under a national popular vote system. Voters in America’s four largest cities — Los Angeles, New York, Houston and Chicago — would see the candidates actually focusing on their cities for votes — something that they do not do now. Under the current system, voters in Dayton, Ohio and Orlando, Florida see them coming through every week and, in the stretch run, almost daily, and they are blitzed with constant political advertising on their local television stations in the lead-up to the vote. This seemingly irrational focus only on certain states is a bizarre consequence of the Electoral College system which causes the respective campaigns to attach a wildly disproportionate importance to votes from swing states while considering votes in most other states to be almost irrelevant.

The skewed way that presidential campaigns operate probably drives down voter turnout rates as well. Since the campaigns all but ignore the country’s most populated cities and states, why wouldn’t general voter interest in these places also be muted? There are important issues of national public policy with direct regional and local impact on voters in California, New York and Texas but the campaigns only focus on those issues which are important in key swing states. Why should federal issues which impact Cleveland or Miami matter more than ones of interest to voters in Sacramento or San Antonio? If the system were changed, they wouldn’t and voters in all areas of the country would be much more likely to see the candidates address the issues which are important to them. Then, they would be more engaged with the political process and therefore more likely to vote.

The only way to scrap the Electoral College is by way of a constitutional amendment which requires the support of at least 38 states (three quarters) and two-thirds majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. It is, rightfully, a steep test. But, when presented the right way, it may be possible. The states, which (except for two) allocate their Electoral College votes as single blocks, would have to agree to give this up but, with the possible exceptions of the swing states (and there aren’t enough of them to stop a constitutional amendment), why wouldn’t they? If California voters support the Democrats over the Republicans 62% to 33%, why not just let that ratio be aggregated into the national vote totals? Same thing for Wyoming and all of the others. As for members of the Senate and the House, why would it matter to them? How would moving to a national popular vote mechanism for electing the President impact Senate or House races either way? The president serves the entire country. Why should the person who holds the office continue to be chosen only by voters in three or four or five states?

And, besides, moving to a national popular vote system would guarantee that the winning candidate was the one who actually received the most votes.

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