Wednesday, December 9, 2015

American History 101: The Electoral College - What's Wrong?

America is a government for the people, by the people... right?

Isn't that what you are taught in high school?  And in high school, do you remember that chapter in your American History text about the Electoral College?  No?  Not really?  Or maybe a little?

Since we are doing our every four year circus of electing a new President here in 2016, I thought as we move towards primary season it was worth revisiting the Electoral College: what it does, what it means to you as a voter, and the problems with this system.

In a nutshell: your vote for President of the United States does not count the way you think it does.

The Electoral College is the group that elects the President and the Vice President of the United States every four years.  Period.  There is no discussion... there is no debate.  These voters directly cast votes that are supposed to represent the will of the people of the state that the represent.  This usually happens -- but not always.  By most state's laws, the electors are expected to vote in accordance with the popular vote.  However, this is not enforceable in 21 of the 50 states.  Only 29 states have direct control over how their electors vote, while 21 have laws that compel them to vote in accordance with the popular vote.  In most of these states, if an elector does not vote the way his electorate has dictated, they are charged with a misdemeanor and fined.  But the vote is not changed.  This has happened in 19 elections in American history and 3 since 1988.

Electoral College Votes by State, 2012

The number of votes each state has is based on the total population of that state.  So, for example, Pennsylvania has a lot more electoral votes, 20,  (and a bigger say in who is elected) than Delaware, 3, does.  And these numbers change with every census that goes out.  That's the main reason why you should tell the census folks how many people live in your home.  That makes sense, right?  But what happens in California (55 votes) when Barack Obama gets 51% of the vote, and John McCain gets 49%?  If you said Barack Obama gets all 55 votes, you're right.  In 48 of the 50 states, the votes all go to the "winner" of the state based on the elector's vote, not necessarily the popular vote.  Today, only two states (Maine and Nebraska) can split their votes based on the actual popular vote -- what you and I would consider "the will of the people".  And, in the end, the candidate that wins the absolute majority of the electoral votes (270) becomes the next President of the United States.  And on four occasions in American history, the President elected by the Electoral College was *not* the President elected by the people.  Most of you will remember the last time this happened, in 2000 when George Bush was elected even though Al Gore had slightly more votes.  It is worth mentioning that in 2000, Barbara Lee Simmons did not cast her vote according to the will of her electors.  She was the Electoral College Representative from the District of Columbia.

While I won't go into detail in this post, the United States originally had straight popular elections.  But there were many problems with those elections -- one of which that spurred major election reform was the Election of 1824 that I previously BLOGged about.  

In essence, the Electoral College exists to further the operation of the government in more of a "status quo" and to ensure the smooth transition of power (See Election of 1824 for why), to boil it down more -- the government does not trust the American people to pick the President and Vice President.  So... what's really wrong with the Electoral College? Oh, so much...

Unfair Voting PowerThe way in which the Electoral College is designed gives an inordinate amount of power to specific states.  It really favors smaller states, giving more power to each individual vote.  For example, each individual vote in Wyoming counts 4 times as much as those in Texas.  Because Wyoming has 3 electoral college votes for 532,000 people while Texas has 32 votes for 25,000,000 people.  That is one vote for every 117,000 people in Wyoming, while Texas has one vote for very 715,000 people.  Sorry gang, that's not "one person, one vote" at all.

Here is a link to an article that goes into more detail about this disparity.

Winner Take All
As mentioned above, the Electoral College not only favors small states by giving more power per vote, but it also takes those votes and simply throws them at the person who gets one more vote.  Because of this, politicians are forced to campaign more in states where the votes count more.  So the mid-range vote states such as; Arizona (11), 
Georgia (16) and Indiana (11) are often less important to the candidates than California (55) and even Delaware (3).  This is because these states are often seen as not worthy of the campaign resources.  This also helps to disillusion voters.  For example, Pennsylvania is primarily a Democratic state as far as voting for the President goes.  Republicans may feel that their vote won't count at all because if the Republican candidate gets 49.9% of the vote, they will not receive any Electoral College votes.

Unbound Electors
There is no federal law that requires electors to vote in accordance with their electorate.  However, 29 states and the District of Columbia do have legal control over their electors vote in the Electoral College.  This means that their electors are bound by state law to vote for the candidate that has won the popular vote in their state.  However, even with these laws in place, the vote does not get changed should an elector not follow the law.  And they are often only charged with a misdemeanor and fined.  The election of 2000 had this happen in the District of Columbia.  And what of the other 21 states?  There are no laws that compel their electors to vote in any way other than what they feel is right.

Just think about that for a minute.  And the consider how much your vote next November will actually matter.  Here is a list of states in which there are laws that compel the vote.  If your state is *not* on this list, your vote is nothing more compelling then sitting in a bar and telling the bartender who you want to be President.

Reinforcement of the Two Party System
With all of the screaming for a "third party" -- why don't we have one?  The Electoral College is one good reason.  Since 1860, no party other than the Republican or Democrat has won a Presidential election.  Before that, we had Federalists, Whigs, Democratic-Republicans and other parties who were on the ballot and a real force in elections.

However, since most states are "winner take all" states, voters often can not get past the "lesser of two evils" mantra.  The vote for what they know because they think that voting for an independent or Libertarian candidate would be a wasted vote.  And they are more-or-less right, since it can be mathematically speaking voting for Donald Trump as an independent in 2016 could certainly impact the Republican candidates chances for any electoral votes.  Why the Republican Party is so weak is a different discussion, however this pushes people do always vote for the R or the D because they think it makes their vote mean more.  

And, in essence, it does.  However, consider what would happen if everyone voted for someone other than the R or the D... who would get elected?  We know that in 21 states -- all bets are off.  Pennsylvania could still vote Democrat with no repercussions!

The President Does Not Have To Be Who We Voted For
This is the culmination of all of the above... who you vote for really does not count.

Consider the election of 2000 as an example.  I will openly tell you I voted for George Bush.  Fine.  But George Bush did not win the popular vote.  In 1824, John Quincy Adams did not win the popular vote.  In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes did not win the popular vote.  These are failures of our electorate system -- and the Electoral College itself.  Yes, it has evolved with this nation as it has grown.  Yet... even today after 240 years the system still fails to represent the will of the people in a fair and balanced way.  Some people say, "it's the best we can do" -- but is it?  Are you willing to take that as the end of the story?

I am not.  We can do better!

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel 

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