People are making a lot of noise this year about the Presidential Primaries being undemocratic and unfair. However, I would like to focus on an equally undemocratic and unfair process that renders the general election votes of most Americans virtually meaningless: The Electoral College. The Electoral College is one of the most undemocratic, unrepresentative, and archaic institutions in the politics of the United States and should be eliminated in favor of a national popular vote.
The electoral college is the system by which the United States indirectly elects its President and Vice President every four years. It was written into the Constitution in 1787 as a way to filter the voice of the masses by allowing them to pick “Electors” who would actually decide who became President. The system has on several occasions (1800, 1824, 1860, 1876, 2000) caused Constitutional Crises that alternate voting systems might have avoided. Every four years, the system takes away the ability of most Americans to have a significant effect in determining the outcome of the General Election.
It is this last point that I would like to home in on. Election turnout in the United States is low compared to other countries, in part because many people feel like their votes don’t matter. For most people, this is probably true. The problem here is similar to gerrymandering: While the general election results are typically fairly close (Obama beat Romney nationally by 3.9 percentage points), individual states are typically not (On average, whichever candidate won a given state won by 19.5 percentage points). This has the effect that, unless you live in a state that tends to be balanced politically, your vote has little effect on the final election results.
This shouldn’t be news to anyone. The states I just described are called “Swing States”. These are the states that decide the election, time after time. Although every person’s vote “counts” equally as one vote, a vote in these states matters more in determining who actually becomes the president.
This is calculable after-the-fact, too, in the following way:
- Find the margin of victory for the winner in a given state
- Take the inverse of this number. This gives you the importance of each vote in determining the winner of this state.
- Multiply that by the number of electoral college votes this state has. This is the importance of your vote, expressed in electoral college votes.
- Divide this number by half of the margin of victory for the winner of the electoral college. This is the importance of the decision by each voter to vote in that state, expressed as a fraction of a win.
I have done this for each state in 2012 and mapped the result:
The states varied in importance from Washington, DC (Where a person’s decision to vote is 194 billionths of a general election victory) to Florida (Where a person’s decision to vote is 6,195 billionths of a general election victory, 32 times more important). The numbers vary from year to year: In 2000, a vote in Florida would have been worth much, much more than a vote in any other state. In 2008, a relatively easy win for Obama, less so.
What if we did it differently? If the Electoral College were abolished in favor of a national popular vote, everyone’s vote would count equally. Voters in California and Utah would be equally important to a candidate’s hopes as voters in Ohio and Florida. Instead of candidates competing for the votes of people who are similar to (but not the same as) you, they would actually be addressing your concerns in your neighborhood.
We Can Fix This
Although the electoral college is in the Constitution, State laws describe how electors must vote. Most states require their electors to vote for whoever won the popular vote in their state. However, a state could require its electors to vote for whoever won the national popular vote. If 270 electoral college votes worth of states (a majority) were to do so, the president would effectively be chosen by the national popular vote.
There is just such a movement. It is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. It has already been signed by 10 states and DC comprising 165 electoral college votes. As few as four more states could be required to enact this into law: Texas, Florida, Illinois, and Pennsylvania combined have 107 electoral college votes, just enough to put the Compact over the top.
It’s not too late to make this law for 2016. If you live in a state that has not yet adopted the Compact, please call your representatives in State government and ask them to improve American Democracy!