Domestic Affairs

Inside the Electoral College: A Fight for the People’s Voice

Nearly three years ago, eager voters flocked to polling stations to exercise their constitutional right, proudly leaving with the “I Voted!” sticker as validation of their sense of civic responsibility. The country watched with anticipation on the evening of Nov. 8, 2016, as the election results trickled in. The rest is history. Donald Trump won the office of the President of the United States, a result which pitted the popular vote against the electoral college. Hillary Clinton walked away with 48% of the popular vote against Trump’s 306 electoral votes. Immediately following that night, in an intense process akin to the five stages of grief, the American people struggled to accept the reality of their new country. As the reality of Mr. Trump’s presidency settled in, many have reignited a fierce debate that has been smoldering since this country’s founding and weighs heavily on the 2020 election season: what place should the electoral college have in our political system? 

Only five times in United States history has a candidate won the popular vote and lost the election: Andrew Jackson in 1824, Samuel Tilden in 1876, Grover Cleveland in 1888, Al Gore in 2000, and, most recently, Hillary Clinton in 2016. Such occasions are relatively rare but have commonly been met with rage and defiance. After the 2016 election, protesters took to the streets across the nation, burning flags, brandishing signs with “Not MY President” in bold print, and staging school walk-outs. The United States was not alone. Across the globe, politicians in Germany, France, and Argentina took to the media to mourn the loss of American values as they feared for the future of US foreign relations. For all of the anxieties surrounding our election process, many citizens are uneducated about the exact responsibilities of the institution. So, what is the origin of the electoral college?

Originally, the Founders created the electoral college as a compromise between the Federalist and Anti-Federalist factions during the formation of the Constitution. Federalists such as John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton feared the idea of overextending the voice of the uneducated masses in matters of federal importance. Thus, measures were adopted to allow people to perform their civic duty from a safe distance. The original purpose of the electoral college was the following: to bridge an agreement between the state government and federal government, to allow for a moderate level of participation from the people, and to preserve the presidency as independent of Congress, safe from political parties.

Today, the method of selecting electors for each party differs from state to state. Broadly speaking, the parties either nominate lists of potential electors at their state party conventions or they choose them by a vote of the party’s central committee. When the voters in each state cast votes for a presidential candidate, they are directing the electors to vote for a particular candidate. Most states use a “winner takes all” system, in which the majority of votes for a particular party wins the entirety of the electoral votes for that state. A slight majority of one party may tip the scales entirely, regardless of the proportion of the population that has voted along the opposing party’s lines. The winning party’s slate of potential electors is appointed as the state’s official electors for the presidential vote. 

As we can see, “we the people” are not truly in control of voting the president into office, despite the tense arguments that split families over Thanksgiving dinner. But shouldn’t we be? Is our Founders’ vision of the electoral college the same as the true electoral college of today? The answer is: not really! 

The Founders would likely be horrified if they witnessed the power of the executive in modern America. The attitude of the federal government has grown increasingly authoritative, and its relationship with the states has grown grossly unbalanced. Since the New Deal, the duties and the responsibilities of the executive branch have swelled to encompass the regulation of banks, control of agricultural production, decisions over public health work, and aid to children, widows, and the disabled. After Franklin D. Roosevelt, the newly bloated office of the presidency replaced Congress as the main policy-maker. Without the direct voice of the populace to support the president, the old fear of tyranny seems to be an increasing threat. This threat seems imminent as our elected representatives either defect from their party lines or go rogue in a term dubbed “faithless elector.” Without any legal obligations to uphold their promised stance, the position of the presidency seems up to the whims of forces beyond our control. 

From the spirit of John Locke lurking over Thomas Jefferson’s pen, our nation stands instilled with the spirit of self-deterministic democratic virtue in the ability of one man to choose his form of government. This spirit, written into law as the 10th Amendment, has expanded the people’s rights and powers over the government. We now elect our senators, the president’s terms are limited, and enfranchisement spread to the entire adult population. And, ultimately, “we the people” are becoming more educated and aware of the political world we share. Our access to media and televised sources of news allows us to be better connected and more politically aware of our nation and the globe than at any other time in our history. We are no longer the ignorant masses of the late 18th century. Yet, our political apathy persists, drawn from the perspective that we could not enact change even if we tried.

The roots of this apathy stem from multiple sources. As a result of the winner-take-all system, a majority state such as New York will rarely cross the party line, causing the presidential candidates to focus their attention upon “swing-states,” such as Florida, where the majority vote is up for grabs. The minority votes of the former will be lost in a nightmarish rendition of Madison’s “tyranny of the majority,” while the candidates focus on earning the approval of one portion of the country. This crosses racial boundaries as well. Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Ohio) argues that the electoral college was built for white, male slave owners who lacked the foresight to predict the existence of a two-party system or the enfranchisement of slaves.

Therefore, she argues, the demographic spread of African Americans in typically Republican southern states had led to their generally Democratic votes being undermined in this system: . “(We have) an electoral college that says to this entire voting block of people, ‘You all are voting in high numbers, high turnout across the board, across the country. But in the end, that does not matter because we’ll have this elector, maybe they’ll do what you’ve done, maybe they won’t.’” It is no great mystery as to why African American voter turnout declined in 2016, down to 59.6% for the first time in 20 years. While faithless electors are relatively rare, the threat intensifies the existing apathy that may already prevent members of the polity from voting. 

The Founders’ vision of American government has been completely transformed today. All three of their goals have failed to be realized — the federal government overrules the states in nearly every case, the people’s voice is not heard even when they are politically active, and the state’s majority political party selects each slate of electors. One may even argue that the Founders’ Constitution and ours are two separate documents for two separate countries. What place does this form of the electoral college have in our current system?

Back in Congress, Democrats have taken action in proposing new legislation concerning the future of the electoral college. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan) proposed the abolition of the electoral college, arguing the system is “an outdated form of electing a president ― one that was originally devised as a compromise to protect the power of slave-owning states.” Other Democrats, such as Rep. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York have also voiced their support of abolition. Another proposed plan is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which replaces the winner-take-all approach with a compact to grant states’ presidential electors to the winner of the national popular vote. The bill has been passed in 16 jurisdictions and will take effect when passed by states with 74 or more electoral votes.

In any scenario, it is clear that the country’s governing body has experienced changes to accompany the shifts in technology, thought, and culture. Perhaps it is time that the electoral college do the same.

Categories: Domestic Affairs

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