Let the People Pick the President
In November 2016, for the fifth time in the history of the United States, a presidential candidate won the popular vote, but lost the presidency. The 2000 election resulted in the same outcome, when former Vice President Al Gore received more total votes than George W. Bush but still lost the highest seat in the land. One might wonder how in a country that prides itself on being a democracy this could ever be possible. The answer is the archaic system of the Electoral College. As we approach another election in mere weeks — arguably the most important of our lifetimes — it is imperative that we understand this issue.
A quick explainer: instead of voting for a candidate, U.S. citizens actually select a panel of people obligated to represent their vote in the Electoral College. Distrustful of direct elections, the founding fathers wanted more sophisticated people as a safeguard between the commoners and the selection of a president. The number of electors for each state equals its congressional representation, which is based on the size of the state’s population. In general, the candidate who wins the majority of votes in the state receives all the electoral votes for that state. The person who will become president needs an absolute majority (270 votes out of 538) of the Electoral College to be elected.
Before I break down the ridiculousness of this process, I want to clarify that this is not a liberal argument, nor a vendetta against conservatives. True, this mess of a system is how Donald Trump and George Bush each ascended to the White House, but logic should be able to transcend party lines. There is no doubt in my mind that the Electoral College needs to be abolished.
Simply put, it’s time to eradicate this obsolete approach which no longer serves our nation in the present day and age. While for much of this country’s history, people identified themselves with their home state first and as Americans second, sectionalism is now old-fashioned. As Taylor Broderick wrote in Forbes before the 2012 election, “We are a much more mobile people now. Education and jobs take many of us far away from our native state. Segmenting our presidential vote by the state name on our driver license seems arbitrary and antithetical to the spirit of choosing a national leader.” The United States is one country, and voting for president should not be divided by state. States don’t vote! Citizens vote.
Selecting the president via the Electoral College causes the election to focus on swing states, states where the two major political parties have similar levels of support among voters. George W. Bush won the White House in a race that hinged entirely on 537 votes in Florida. Contenders must work only to secure the electoral votes in those crucial states. If you are not in a swing state then your individual vote does not matter in deciding the election. Campaigns ignore many states, like the Republican-leaning Texas and liberal-stronghold New York, as those locales are virtually pre-determined and do not impact the results. If the popular vote was what determined the winner, imagine how differently election season would play out. Candidates would have to work harder to find votes throughout the country, and for the first time, all 50 states would be fair game.
Take a look at this chart from FairVote, an organization that mapped every presidential campaign event in 2016:
Two-thirds of the visits took place in just six states (Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Michigan), and 94%of the stops went to a mere 12 states! 24 states plus Washington, D.C. tally up to a grand total of ZERO campaign visits. That’s what the Electoral College does. It discards the majority of Americans’ voices.
Currently, each state has a significant number of voters whose voices are never heard. There is a large population of would-be voters that do not cast a ballot due to the fact that they live in a state that is reliably “red” or “blue.” In those states, where the electoral votes will clearly go to the traditional allegiances of that region, many voters feel disenfranchised. Millions of Americans living in three of the country’s four largest states — California, Texas and New York — don’t bother to vote because the winner-take-all rules discourage participation of those outnumbered statewide. If the selection of the president was based on majority vote, there would be greater voter turnout. I’m not claiming that a Republican will flip Manhattan, but certainly there is a lot of support to be garnered in upstate NY. The same goes for Democrats. In 2016 Nominee Hillary Clinton received 40% of the vote in Mississippi, and it did not matter in the slightest.
In fact, the argument for a popular vote system is so strong that nearly 60% of U.S. adults already support the switch (Pew Research Center). You’d be hard-pressed to find a solid counterargument in favor of the Electoral College. Allen Guelzo of National Affairs Magazine posits that “the Constitution says not a word about holding a popular vote for presidents,” but America’s most important document does lay out the Electoral College in great detail. Is this the same Constitution that originally only allowed land-owning white males to vote? We can easily respect the sanctity of the Constitution while acknowledging that as we progress as a country, it needs to be amended. And in regards to voting issues, we’ve amended it numerous times!
Another argument against the will of people comes from elites like John Yoo, a former Department of Justice official. In the Pepperdine Law Review Journal, Yoo wrote that “a system of direct election… could be even more deleterious to American democracy, as it presents a far higher risk of… falling prey to the tyranny of the majority.” However, our government already ensures plenty of protections against tyranny: checks and balances between Congress and the Executive branch, the filibuster, an independent judiciary and the disproportionate representation afforded to less populous states in the Senate just to name a few. The president is not the only position that matters, and if the case against the popular vote is that citizens will actually get the commander-in-chief they want, then it is clear which side makes more sense.
There is no other advanced democracy on the planet that has a comparable system to elect its executive. The United States is not truly functioning as a democracy in this respect, rather as a republic. Having a straight popular vote makes every vote equal. One person, one vote. Simple. Fair. As Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan GOP told Politico, “We have 514,000 elected officials in this country, and all of them are elected by who gets the most votes. Except for one.”
Ultimately, every citizen should have the right to cast a vote that counts. The Electoral College takes that right away and gives special privilege to the winning party in the most populous states, not only by attributing all the votes that were cast in the state to the victorious party, but also by allocating more electoral votes to the more populous states. It is time to make our voices heard. It is time to let the people choose the president.
Photo caption: A 2012 tweet from Donald Trump expressing dissatisfaction at the Electoral College. He would later go on to win the presidency through the same system.
Photo Credit: Twitter