US Elections 2020: Here's why the Electoral College is a debated topic
We might be witnessing a momentous Presidential election this year with experts predicting a narrow-margin victory. The US can be called the most influential country in the world and the one who takes the reins will influence some of the important and debated subjects of 2020. Handling of the coronavirus pandemic, approach on the Green New Deal, tackling the COVID-19 induced global recession -- and a few more.
With the drama currently unfolding before us, you may have heard the term “electoral college” being thrown around a lot and wondered how it can impact the results. The reason is that US citizens don’t vote directly for their President. Instead, their vote influences the persons representing the state they reside in. Every state in the US plus the District of Columbia (DC) has a certain number of representatives depending on the population and two senators that comprise the Electoral College. For example, California, due to being the most populous US state, gets 53 representatives while Hawaii only gets two representatives in the United States House of Representatives. In total, there are 435 Representatives and 100 senators plus three electors from DC which comprises the 538 electors whose votes end up determining the fate of the election.
How the Electoral College came to be
The Electoral College was founded in 1787, as the result of a compromise, during the Philadelphia Convention. The convention was organised to contemplate how America should be governed. One group of delegates were strictly of the opinion that the Congress should have no say in the selection of a President fearing corruption between the executive and legislative branches of the US government. Another set of delegates felt that the common people lacked the knowledge required in electing the President and hence were against the idea of a “popular vote” system. The resulting debate led to the compromise that electoral intermediaries will be appointed by each state who will cast the decisive vote.
Why the debate around the Electoral College?
Did you know that Donald Trump won the Presidency in 2016 even though Hilary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, won the popular vote? When the votes were counted, the result showed that Trump had received a total of 62,980,160 votes (46.1 per cent), while Clinton had gathered 65,845,063 (48.2 per cent). Why was he still elected President, you ask? Due to the Electoral College!
In 48 states across the US, a system called “winner takes all” system exists. This means if 48 per cent of eligible voters in a state vote for Candidate A, and the rest votes for Candidate B, every electors’ vote in that state goes to the latter. Usually, the representatives of each state end up voting according to the popular vote of his/her state -- but that hasn’t been always the case. In 2016, even though Trump lost the popular vote, he accumulated 306 electoral votes out of the possible 358, effectively winning the Presidency. Over the years, five presidents have won the election without the popular vote, two of which happened in the last 20 years.
Another problem with the Electoral College system is that it over-represents small states. For example, Rhode Island, with a population of 1,056,160, gets four electoral votes while California, which is home to 39,937,500 citizens, gets 55 electoral votes. This makes electoral delegate in Rhode Island represent 264,040 people, while a delegate in California represents roughly 726,136 people. This effectively gives the vote of an individual in Rhode Island more than double the weight of the vote of an individual in California.
The Electoral College system has also incentivised candidates for excessively catering to the needs of the swing states. In the US, swing states are states that are equally likely to vote for Republicans or Democrats. A recent NPR analysis spoke about the money spent on TV ads in the presidential race. The report revealed that almost $9 out of every $10 (a whopping $882 million!) is being invested in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Arizona -- all of whom are swing states.
Even though the Electoral College has been under fire for more than 200 years, it has managed to stay in the modus operandi of the election of a US President. According to a Gallup Polls report, 61 per cent of Americans prefer replacing the Electoral College with the popular vote system. On several occasions, movements for the abolishment of the system took place. Once in 1816, the Congress, for the first time called for a resolution to bring forth the popular vote system. The southern states, or the pro-slavery states, were quick to block the idea since the three-fifths clause, which counted every black person (who, by the way, didn’t have the right to vote). This was because three-fifths of a white person while representing the population gave the pro-slavery states an advantage in elections. It was in 1969 that the country came closest to abolishing the Electoral College system. An amendment to abolish the system was brought forth in Congress, which was overwhelmingly passed in the House of Representatives -- only to be rejected by the Senate.
Gallup Polls Report
Over the years, the relevance of the Electoral vote had been challenged. Ex-President of US Barack Obama, in his final press conference before leaving office, called the system a “vestige” and a “carryover” from the time of the founding fathers, while acknowledging that the system “put a lot of premium on states.” In 2012, the current President Trump had tweeted: “The Electoral College is a disaster for democracy” which he was quick in rectifying after his victory in 2016 by tweeting: “The Electoral College is actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play. Campaigning is much different!”