In the United States, there is always something sacred about Election Day. From our first history lessons in primary school, we are taught to cherish the cultivation of American democracy as the manifestation of enlightened thought and a model to be exported to democratizing states around the world. Every American History textbook highlights the first peaceful transition of power from George Washington to John Adams in 1797 as a defining moment in establishing the success of the American system, and the importance that elections would continue to play in the future in order to maintain fair and representative leadership.
All of this over-simplified exceptionalist spin sounds very nice before the constitutional caveats are explained to us a few years later. Constitutional grandeur is replaced by the disenfranchisement of women and minorities, literacy tests, property requirements, and the infamous compromise to count African Americans as three fifths of a person. With these reflections, the image of the United States as a ‘city upon a hill’ becomes a bit less beaming, though continuous ratifications allow us to conclude that the principal pillars of democracy established by the founding fathers were not made of sand.
There is, however, one compromise regarding the means of American democracy that has remained largely unaddressed: the Electoral College system. As was subject to public outrage in 2000 with the election of George W. Bush, American presidents are not elected by popular public vote, and in fact, never have been. The Electoral College system was developed when communication across nation was slow and impractical, so states would instead send delegates to Washington to make decisions for the uninformed voters at home. While the information delivery systems of the 18th century have become obsolete, the electoral system still remains.
Each state in the United States has at least three electoral votes, and is given additional votes based roughly on population size. California holds the most Electoral College votes with 55, while states like Vermont, Alaska, and Wyoming only have three. When citizens cast their votes in their home state, they are not actually voting directly for a candidate, but for the candidate they would have their state endorse. At the time of writing, Barack Obama had won with 303 electoral votes over Mitt Romney’s 206, though is it estimated that he won the popular vote by a 2-3% margin. As demonstrated by the controversy in 2000, the Electoral College is obviously subject to fallibility.
It’s always nice to have someone tell you that you are special. As a resident of a swing-county in the swing-state of Pennsylvania, I received an abundance of mailings, phone calls, and visits from members of both campaigns at my home address, emphasising the primacy of my political needs with a slew of catchy slogans meant to capitalize upon my own egocentrism (i.e. ‘You are the future/America/the person who did, in fact, build that.’)
That is, until it was established that Pennsylvania would yield to Obama; then all campaign efforts were shifted west to ‘Battleground Ohio.’ In Presidential campaign politics, voters are only as special as the uncertain political attitudes of their home state.
Under the current election system, candidates are thus obligated to campaign strategically in order to be competitive. Out of the five most populous states; California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, only Florida is typically considered to be a swing-state. Thus, in order to address the realities of the Electoral College system, candidates essentially ignore four of the largest American populations on the campaign trail. Even as the President’s ultimate duty is to represent the majority interest of United States citizens, upholding the institution that perpetuates this compulsion lies beyond the constraints of modern rationality.
While the Electoral College System may make voters in solidly Democratic or Republican states feel marginalised or overlooked, it distinctly disenfranchises many additional Americans. Washington D.C. was given three electors in 1961, and it remains the only non-state region allowed to vote in presidential elections. The 4.4 million American citizens of territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands do not have a say in the presidential election, despite the fact that they form an American population greater than Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Delaware, combined. Still, the roughly 6.3 million American living abroad, or in even in outer space, remain entitled to vote in their home states, unless they move to one of these territories.
So, why, twelve years after the election of a president who lost the popular vote and left office with one of the highest disapproval ratings in American history, does the United States still employ the Electoral College system? Is it not within the parameters of ‘all men are created equal’ to have every vote count equally in a final election? Those who advocate perpetuating the system stress the importance of maintaining equality among states, in order to prevent candidates from campaigning exclusively in the most populous areas. This would mean that less-inhabited states like New Hampshire and Iowa would have less impact on national elections than the more populous states of California and Texas, but given that there are more people to be represented in California and Texas, logic would only dictate that more attention be given to these areas by a candidate meant to represent the needs of each citizen, not each region. Further, the impetus to vote would be extended to all Americans, regardless of residency in swing-states or more politically consistent states. The institution of a popular vote would thus not dictate a tyranny of the majority, but rather eradicate the tyranny of an out-dated institution founded-upon irrelevant perceptions of the nation that perhaps should have faded from mainstream politics with the abolition of literacy tests, property requirements, and discrimination based on race and gender.