Your vote matters.
For many American citizens, this message embodies what it means to be a member of a democracy. Selfies with “I Voted” stickers flood social media feeds on Election Day, celebrities encourage fans to make a plan to vote, and numerous organizations are dedicated to voting rights advocacy. Voting is the cornerstone of American democracy. But once a voter casts their ballot in a presidential election, where does that vote go and what system is it fed into? What significance does a single vote hold on the larger scale of American government and politics? That’s where the contentious and complicated system known as the Electoral College comes in.
“It’s sort of a game,” said Dr. Kenneth Warren, a political science professor at Saint Louis University. The game begins the same way in each state, with the tallying of the popular vote. Then the candidate who receives a plurality of the votes is awarded all of the state’s electoral votes. To win the whole game, a candidate must amass 270 electoral votes out of the total 538. The number of electoral votes allocated to each state is determined by the size of the state’s Congressional delegation. For example, Missouri has 8 Representatives and 2 Senators, so it gets 10 electoral votes. Because every state has 2 Senators and at least 1 Representative, every state is guaranteed a baseline of 3 electoral votes. According to Warren and many other election experts, this is when the rules of the game start to become unfair.
“You have a lot of small states that don’t deserve the electors they have based on population. […] The fact of the matter is people in Wyoming and Alaska have more than equal representation in the Electoral College,” said Warren. He pointed to the fact that the entire population of Alaska is only two-thirds that of St. Louis County, but the state still gets 3 electoral votes. Warren also explained that Missouri’s population is over 10 times that of Wyoming, but only receives 3 times more electoral representation.
States with small populations, such as Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, are disproportionately represented in a system that is supposed to represent all states’ populations proportionately. Voter influence isn’t equal between all Americans; a vote in one state can hold significantly more power than in another state. For example, statistics from electoral reform organization FairVote show that a citizen in Wyoming has 3.18 times as much power in the Electoral College than the average U.S. voter.
Another frequently criticized rule of the Electoral College game is how the electoral votes are actually allocated to candidates.
“The way those electoral votes are awarded is on what’s called a winner-take-all basis,” said Jesse Wegman, New York Times editorial board member and author of “Let the People Pick the President: The Case For Abolishing the Electoral College.” “And what that means is, in all but two states, the state has decided that the candidate who wins the most votes in that state gets 100% of its electors, no matter how close the vote is, even if it’s almost exactly a tie.” To understand this rule better, let’s lay out an example. The Globe surveyed a total of 536 members of the CHS community. The portion of those respondents who said they planned to vote in the 2020 election were broken down into 3 groups: 257 parents, 71 teachers, and 13 students. Let’s call the parents State A, the teachers State B, and the students State C. When asked which candidate they would support, Biden won approximately 84% of the State A popular vote, 87% of State B, and 62% of State C. Now that the popular vote has been tallied, let’s give each state 2 electoral votes and an additional number of votes based on population. State A will get 77 votes, State B will get 23 votes, and State C will get 6 votes. Biden wins all three states’ electoral votes, and 44 votes will not count. That means around 13% of survey respondents who plan to vote would not get a say in this mock election.
Additionally, the winner-take-all method of assigning electors means that a candidate can lose the national popular vote but still play their cards right to win the Electoral College game. This has happened 5 times in the history of American elections, with the election in 2016 as the most recent example. Ultimately, American presidential elections can be determined more by strategy than popularity. If a candidate knows how to play the game to their advantage, they will still win even if the rules may not be fair.
The key to winning the game is not through gaining the most votes from the American people. Instead, it is played in a few specific locations on the board: swing states. Most states will reliably go red or blue in every presidential election. Because of the winner-take-all method, Democratic votes cast in Missouri, Wyoming, Tennessee and other Republican strongholds are largely erased once they enter the Electoral College system. The same goes for Republican votes in safe Democratic states such as California, New York and Massachusetts. In our CHS survey simulation, States A, B and C would all be safe Democratic states. Electoral votes in these states are almost guaranteed to be cast for the Democratic candidate in every election. For example, FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast gives Biden more than a 99% chance of winning California. He has less than a 1% chance of winning Wyoming.
“My students coming from, let’s say, Mississippi or Wyoming or New York or California, will say to me, why should I vote because my vote doesn’t matter? And they’re right. It doesn’t matter,” Warren said. Wegman pointed out that in 2016, 4.5 million votes were cast for Donald Trump in California. In just one state, millions of votes did not count at all.
The Electoral College creates a disproportionate focus on battleground states: the handful of states where both candidates actually have a decent shot at winning. This focus is reflected in both policy platforms and campaign stops. According to National Popular Vote Inc., an organization that advocates for the abolition of the Electoral College, two-thirds of 2016 post-convention campaign events by both candidates took place in only six states. 94% of events took place in 12 states.
The problem with that is that it means [candidates] focus on a tiny sliver of the American population to win the entire election.”
— Jesse Wegman
“The problem with that is that it means [candidates] focus on a tiny sliver of the American population to win the entire election. They should be having to talk to all Americans everywhere, but because of that winner-take-all rule, they only have to worry about a few states – this year it’s states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida and Arizona. Those states are no less important than any other state but they’re no more important than any other state, and a president is the only person in the country who has to represent all Americans equally no matter where they live,” Wegman said.
Candidates know that the decisions made by Pennsylvania voters on Election Day matter far more than those made by members of the electorate in safe states such as Maryland or Alabama. Many critics of the Electoral College contend that this creates a stark disparity in which states’ interests are catered to by campaigns. Wegman pointed out that the issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a main focus of both Biden’s and Trump’s policy platforms.
“Fracking is a tiny issue in the larger question of the American energy system and the issues of environmental harm. So why do they talk so much about it? Because it’s of great interest to people in western Pennsylvania, where a lot of fracking occurs, and Pennsylvania is a battleground state,” Wegman said. “Meanwhile, they completely ignore issues that matter to millions of more people, like public transportation in the big cities or climate change and the effects of climate change and wildfires and floods out west. Those are the kinds of things that presidential candidates should be talking about because they affect everybody or they affect millions more Americans, and yet they end up focusing on these niche issues that only affect small numbers of Americans.” Wegman emphasized that fracking is not unimportant – but it should not hold more importance just because it applies specifically to a swing state.
Obviously, the rules of the Electoral College play a massive role in how the American political system works and how presidential candidates run their campaigns. So how were these rules created? What was the original rationale behind them?
Dr. Randall Calvert, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, explained that the system “was originally designed to put some distance between the popular electorate and the President.” The Electoral College is often described as a mechanism to prevent tyranny of the majority and to provide stability to the electoral system by ensuring that a candidate always receives a majority.
Calvert said that preserving the integrity of elections was an original aim in the system’s creation: “Part of the story was to prevent demagoguery, part of the story actually also was to provide the least possible opportunity for manipulation and parties and strategizing to form behind who would be the president.” However, Calvert explained that the creation of parties was in fact accelerated by the Electoral College because organized party systems were needed to get one candidate to a majority of 270 electoral votes.
Justin Fox, a professor of political science at Washington University, said, “An Electoral College advocate might believe the fact that a person who gets a minority support among the citizens can actually become a President might be a feature and not a bug, because it would increase the chances of divided government, which makes it harder for majorities to oppress minorities.” Fox explained that opponents of the Electoral College often find oppression of the majority by the minority more of a cause for concern than the other way around.
“The founders themselves were actually very ambivalent about the idea of popular participation in government,” said Wegman. The Electoral College reflects this concern about what would happen if the people’s will was truly represented in government and whether that will would gain too much power.
The system was also created to close the gap that existed at the time between limited voter knowledge and the complicated reality of politics.
“They designed it in part to deal with the fact that most Americans would not know anything about national political candidates,” said Wegman. “There was no transportation network, there was no communications network, there was no TV or radio, people didn’t travel far from their home. And so, when it came to electing a national leader, they feared that a lot of Americans, most of them would not know anything about those candidates and wouldn’t know how to make a good choice.” The idea of electors was created to put the presidential election into the hands of highly educated, politically aware people who could make a more well-informed decision than the average American voter. However, that original intent no longer holds true.
Wegman continued, “The problem was that that system collapsed almost immediately because national political parties developed and electors and voters suddenly became affiliated with one party or another, and so they stopped thinking so much about what’s in the best interest of the country as what’s in the best interests of my party.” Instead of engaging in intellectual debate and careful deliberation, electors have become more of a symbolic figurehead.
Many frequently-criticized aspects of the Electoral College stem from the fact that it is an antiquated system. It was built during a time when women couldn’t vote, when there was no two-party system, and when the protection of slavery dominated legislative interests. Because of the 3/5 Compromise, which stipulated that every enslaved person would count for 3/5 of a person in matters of representation, white voters in slave states benefited from the Electoral College because their increased representation in Congress meant more electoral votes. The modern world does not align with this system anymore.
Many critics of the Electoral College say that it doesn’t have to be this way. The rules of the game can change.
“We could do it any number of other ways, like having the electors selected from congressional districts like in Maine and Nebraska. […] Or we could have them allocated proportionately – the Democrats get three quarters of votes, they get three quarters of the electors,” Calvert said.
Maine and Nebraska both use a split system instead of winner-takes-all. Both states assign two electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote, but the winners of each individual Congressional district also get one electoral vote. Another more drastic shift away from the current system would be the implementation of a popular vote: the candidate with the most votes from the American people would win the presidency. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is an agreement enacted by 15 states, as well as Washington, D.C. If enough states eventually enter the compact so that their combined electoral votes are 270 or more, these states would commit to allocating all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote, instead of the statewide popular vote. This would circumvent the rules of the game and allow the winner of the popular vote to win the presidency by gaining a majority of electoral votes, but without abolishing the Electoral College. Under this solution, every person’s vote would count equally towards a candidate no matter the political climate or coincidental demographics of individual states.
However, the chances of transitioning away from the Electoral College in the near future remain slim.
“Politically speaking, the Democrats and Republicans still like the Electoral College because it protects their parties from third party competition. Under the Electoral College, there’s no way a third party candidate can win realistically,” Warren said.
Even though public opinion polls show a majority of Americans oppose the Electoral College – 58%, according to one Pew Research Center poll – the two-party system is protected by the current method of choosing the president. Politicians who benefit from a system are unlikely to spearhead calls for its abolition. And the Electoral College doesn’t always advantage Republicans the way it did in 2016 – in fact, Wegman explains in a Times Opinion video that total popular vote shares between 1932 and 2008 have been roughly split equally between Republicans and Democrats. So even though many Democrats currently support abolishing the Electoral College, would that change if in a few decades if more swing states start to tilt blue?
Right now, the game has been played for so long that it feels normal. But sometimes, even as impossible as it seems, all it takes is simple rule change to make the game more fair for everyone playing.