Henry Mcleish: Why American democracy is not working
The Electoral College lies at the heart of America’s dysfunctional democracy. Written into the US Constitution in 1787 by the founding fathers – certainly in a different era – the now infamous and anachronistic Electoral College undermines the basic principles of democracy, gives the Republican party a permanent electoral advantage, exposes America to the tyranny of the minority and destroys the idea that all votes have equal weight in presidential elections. MSNBC presenter Chris Hayes has described the Electoral College as “wildly perverse and utterly indefensible”.
In the US presidential election system, instead of a nationwide vote to determining the outcome, the presidency is determined by votes cast by electors of the Electoral College.
Illustrating the absurdity of the system is the possibility that a candidate could conceivably win with 24 per cent of the voting-age population as Trump did in 2016.
History could repeat itself in 2020. A toxic mix of a country notorious for its low turnouts, with about half of the population voting, and half of that number voting for Trump as in 2016, distorted by the Electoral College, in the context of the chaos and the spreading of doubts and fears about the electoral process could deliver a second term for Trump.
The Electoral College is the body of electors which forms every four years for the sole purpose of electing the president and vice-president of the United States.
Article II of the Constitution determined that the number of electors in each state is equal to the state’s membership in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The US Electoral College comprises 538 electors – representing 100 Senators, 435 House Representatives and three from the District of Columbia (DC) – and a majority of 270 electoral vote is required to win the election. In DC and in 48 of the states, excluding Maine and Nebraska, the winner receives all the electoral college votes.
Certain states do not require their electors to honour the election results, which has led occasionally to the phenomenon known as the “faithless elector”.
The main weakness of the Electoral College is that it undermines democracy by rejecting the basic principles of one person, one vote and violates the core tenet of democracy, that all votes count equally. The consequences were dramatic in 2016, when Trump won the Electoral College vote even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million. This has happened on four previous occasions in US history.
Because each state – regardless of how many voters live there – gets two electors for their two senators, the Electoral College gives an extra edge to less populous rural states which are Republican strongholds.
By the winner in each state taking all the electoral college votes, large majorities count for nothing with a tendency to focus all campaigning activity in the eight to ten battle - ground states to the exclusion of a proper Us-wide election.
The framers of the US constitution had serious concerns about the future of their country and believed safeguards were needed to protect the institution of the presidency. They were very distrustful of “factions”, the “mob” or the “masses”, questioned the competence of voters to make informed decisions and were determined to protect the federalist republic and the influence of the states. The Electoral College was a compromise, rejecting the President being elected by Congress or a national popular vote.
This aim, of favouring small states over large states and protecting them from being overwhelmed, ensured US democracy was weakened and compromised from the start. After the 2018 Senate elections, it had 18 senators from nine large states representing 50 per cent of the US population. In contrast, the other 50 per cent of the population were represented by 82 senators from 41 states. Two hundred and fifty years after this system was created, it looks unfair and ridiculous. But at the heart of this electoral enigma is the enduring question of federalism versus democracy. The House of Representatives reflects the population and voters of each state. The Senate is a product of federalism representing states, not people, and is undemocratic and politically rigged and has been since the creation of the US in 1776. The presidential election gives an added and disproportionate importance to small, white, rural states.
Wyoming with a population of nearly 600,000 gets three Electoral College votes – one per 200,000 people. California, the most populous state with nearly 40 million, has 55 Electoral College votes – one per 727,000 people. So people in Wyoming have 3.6 times more say over the presidency than an individual Californian.
Setting aside the obvious unfairness of the Electoral College, it seems insane to have a system that gives the presidency to the person who gets fewer votes. Strangely enough, in 2012 Donald Trump agreed, when he mistakenly thought that Obama had lost the popular vote. He tweeted: “The phoney electoral college made a laughing-stock out of our nation. The loser one! [won]”. Changed days!
The Electoral College is unlikely to be scrapped, despite public opinion being strongly in favour of its abolition. In a poll carried out in 2018 by Prr/atlantic Survey, 65 per cent of Americans supported selecting the President by the popular vote.
Unfortunately, this is where the tyranny of the minority meets an immovable obstacle. In the partisan world of American politics, it is now impossible to amend or update the constitution of the United States.
Achieving a constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate, and ratification from three-fourths of the states. This is technically difficult. Some would say politically impossible.
One glimmer of hope is a group called the “National Popular Vote Compact” who have come up with a plan to bypass a constitutional amendment in which each state would award all of its electoral college votes in line with the national popular vote. If enough states signed up to this agreement to reach the 270 majority, the candidate who gained the most votes nationwide would also win the presidency: this has real possibilities and would avoid the need to abolish the electoral college or pursue an amendment to the constitution.
Dan Pfeifer, in his new book, “UnTrumping America”, says, “Eliminating the Electoral College would give everyone a say in who is president. No matter where you live, no matter how red or blue your state, your vote will count. More people would feel like a part of our democracy”. Unfortunately, this will not happen before 3 November and America will remain a democracy in name only.