Voting for President of the United States
Come this November, many of us Americans will journey to our specified polling place to cast a vote for the next President of the United States. Our government leads us to believe that our vote matters, and that we should not take the responsibility lightly.
As a political science major, I religiously follow presidential campaigns and was looking forward to being able to vote this November in the general election for the first time. However, as I did more research on our voting system my excitement began to evaporate.
In fact, the more research I did on America's voting process the more incredulous I became. This was due in large part to my growing understanding of the Electoral College.
What is the Electoral College?
In the month of November during a presidential election year, each state holds an open election in which all qualified citizens may participate. Citizens cast a vote for a particular 'ticket', which comprises of a candidate for President and Vice President.
Many Americans are familiar with this part of the voting process. What happens after this stage, though, is not as universally understood.
It is at this point in the election process that the Electoral College begins to take effect. In 48 states the Electoral College is utilized in the same way (Maine and Nebraska have a slight variation). After the votes in each of these 48 states are counted and tallied, the political party whose candidate received a majority in a particular state is allowed to choose a slate of electors who will cast the real votes for President.
In total there are 538 electors who comprise of the Electoral College. States are not allotted electoral votes solely based on population. They are given electoral votes based on their representation in Congress. So each state is given a minimum of 3 electoral votes (each state has 2 Senators and at least 1 Representative) regardless of population.
We vote for President in November, but all 538 electors meet at a designated location within their respective state in December to cast an official ballot. The candidate who receives a majority of the electoral votes (currently 270) wins the election.
Problems with the Electoral College
There are many issues with the Electoral College. However, for the sake of expediency I will only touch on the ones I find to be most relevant.
1) The Distribution of Electoral College Votes Per State is Not Equally Dispersed
The Electoral College was created, in part, to make the states feel important in a federalist government. If the amount of Electoral College votes a state receives was directly proportionate to its population, smaller rural states would be rendered completely irrelevant. So they gave every state (along with the District of Columbia) a minimum of 3 votes.
While this distribution method successfully stroked the ego of our smaller states, it produced many unforeseen consequences. For starters, it made the value of each citizens vote different from that of someone living in another state.
As fairvote.org explains, "For instance, each individual vote in Wyoming counts nearly four times as much in the Electoral College as each individual vote in Texas. This is because Wyoming has three (3) electoral votes for a population of 532,668 citizens (as of 2008 Census Bureau estimates) and Texas has thirty-two (32) electoral votes for a population of almost 25 million. By dividing the population by electoral votes, we can see that Wyoming has one "elector" for every 177,556 people and Texas has one "elector" for about every 715,499."
By giving smaller states more electoral votes per person than larger states, disparity was created across the nation in regards to the significance of each citizens' vote. With the Electoral College, the value of a vote depends on what state a person lives in.
2) Swing States vs. Safe States
In 48 states, a presidential candidate can win 50.01% of the popular vote in a state, yet receive 100% of the electoral votes from that state.
This is important because some states are considered 'swing states' and others are considered 'safe states.'
Safe states are states that have historically proven to always vote in favor of the candidate of a particular party. Safe states for Republicans include Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Tennessee and Indiana, amongst others. Safe states for Democrats include New York, California, Maryland, Illinois and Washington, amongst others.
Swing states are states that have historically maintained equal support for the candidates of both parties, and are viewed as crucial in deciding the outcome of an election. Swing states include Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia and Colorado.
Therefore a Republican's vote in Maryland really doesn't matter and a Democrat's vote in Texas is worthless. However, if you are a resident of a swing state, say Florida for example, your vote is marginally more significant than the vote of an individual in a safe state.
This is because under an Electoral College voting process, an individual vote is only as valuable as its ability to influence the majority vote of a state. Why? Because you are not casting a direct vote for President; the electors are. And in 48 states plus the district of Colombia, the citizen's majority vote determines which candidate will receive all the electoral votes from their state.
3) A Person Can Become President By Winning Only 21.8% of the Popular Vote
As previously stated, the Electoral College is a winner take all system. If a candidate wins the popular vote of a state by a just a single vote, he generally receives all the electoral votes of that state (excluding Maine and Nebraska). Combine this with the fact that smaller states receive more electoral votes per person than larger states, and it becomes possible to win the presidency by winning just 21.8% of the American public's vote.
According to a study done by Jesse Ruderman, "A presidential candidate could be elected with as a little as 21.8% of the popular vote by getting just over 50% of the votes in DC and each of 39 small states. This is true even when everyone votes and there are only two candidates. In other words, a candidate could lose with 78.2% of the popular vote by getting just under 50% in small states and 100% in large states."
The reason that winning the 39 smallest states by a slight margin and outright losing the larger states results in winning the presidency with the lowest possible percentage of the popular vote, is because a candidate can win the votes of the fewest amount of people, yet reap the greatest reward by receiving more electoral votes than the state of those people should reasonably be given.
We saw this happen on a smaller scale in the 2000 election. Al Gore won 48.4% of the popular vote, trumping the 47.9% that George W. Bush garnered. However in the Electoral College, Gore received 266 votes while Bush received 271.
We must ask ourselves if we want a voting system that allows a President to be elected into office when less than ¼ of our nation voted for him or her. Or even if we want a voting process that allows a President to be elected when another candidate received just .5% more of the national popular vote, which actually happened just 16 years ago. In both cases, the collective demand of the American people is being denied.
4) Faithless Electors
While electors are generally extremely loyal to the party they align with, they don't have to vote the way the people of their state instructed them to. In other words, just because a candidate won the popular vote in your state does not mean that your electors have to cast a vote for said candidate themselves. Electors that vote against the will of the people are called "faithless electors."
As fairvote.org explains, "Since the founding of the Electoral College, there have been 157 faithless electors. 71 of these votes were changed because the original candidate died before the day on which the Electoral College cast its votes. Three of the votes were not cast at all as three electors chose to abstain from casting their electoral vote for any candidate. The other 82 electoral votes were changed on the personal initiative of the elector."
Twenty-nine states have legislation that penalizes faithless electors, though no faithless elector has ever been successfully prosecuted. 21 states do not mandate that an elector must vote for his or her party's candidate.
Should the opinion of one person be able to overwrite the will of thousands (or even millions) of American voters?
It's worth considering that it might be time to rescind the Electoral College and rely exclusively on a national popular vote to determine our President.
By electing our President solely based on who the majority of our population selects, without the inclusion of an Electoral College, the vote of every American citizen would hold equal weight and significance. Under this new system, when we vote for President we would actually be voting for President, not instructing 'electors' on how we want them to vote. The will of the American people would always be executed and honored, and could never be thwarted.
With the Electoral College, the voting power of the people has been diluted and unequally distributed across our nation. It's time that we begin to amend our broken process.