Problems with Electoral Votes

In a democratic election, it is common for the people to choose their government. In the United States, the head of government is not chosen directly by the people, but by Electors who represent the nation’s fifty States and the District of Columbia – these Electors form the Electoral College and they in fact choose the President of the United States.

To put it simply, the American people decide who votes for the President they want.

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” – H.L. Mencken

To become President of the United States, a candidate needs to win the absolute majority of the Electoral Votes from the Electoral College. In order to win Electoral Votes, one needs to obtain to majority of the votes in a State.

Each U.S. State is worth Electoral Votes. The number of Votes a State is worth is determined by the population of the State. The more populous a State, the higher its number of Electoral Votes. These values are adjusted every decade.

U.S. Presidential Elections are ruled by a system called first past the post. This means that whichever candidate receives the most votes in a certain State is declared the winner in that particular State. The winner receives all the Electoral Votes of the State (except for Nebraska and Maine, which allow Electoral Votes to be divided between different candidates).

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” – Isaac Asimov

Now, from a democratic viewpoint, this system is not ideal for a number of reasons, namely:

  • The use of Electoral Votes is not as democratic as it could be; the President of the United States is chosen indirectly. Whenever the word ‘indirectly’ has to be used in reference to an aspect of an election, it does not engender ‘more democracy’. In other words, the Electoral Vote system (indirect election) discards the Popular Vote (direct election). Hypothetically, a candidate could become President by winning just the eleven biggest States.
  • Because the Popular Vote counts for nothing as a whole, and because of discrepancies in the way Electoral Votes are assigned to States, it is possible for a candidate to win more Electoral Votes than his opponent and still lose the Popular Vote. To put it simply, one can become President of the United States by getting fewer votes from the American people than your opponent. – R.B. Hayes (1876), B. Harrison (1888) and G.W. Bush (2000) became President even though they and their party did not win a majority of the Popular Vote (in 1824, J.Q. Adams did not personally win a majority of the Popular Vote even though his party did).
  • In 157 instances, members of the Electoral College have cast their Electoral Votes in a different manner than the majority of the people in their respective States wanted them to. Electors who essentially vote against the wishes of their State are called Faithless Electors.
  • The Electoral Votes cause the votes in more populous States to be of less significance. To illustrate that, consider the following: in Wyoming, less than 200,000 votes make up one Electoral Vote; in Texas, over 700,000 votes are needed for the same Electoral Vote.
  • However, the current system does not make the votes in small States more significant either. Because votes are counted per State, only those States which can realistically be won by more than one candidate are relevant to the competing parties. These States, which do not have a predictable voting trend, are called Swing States. In a typical U.S. Presidential Election, only the Swing States which carry a large number of Electoral Votes are important to the candidates and the media. Because of this, the Americans in 80% of U.S. States receive no attention whatever.
  • Finally, participation suffers under the current system. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, in a first past the post system small parties are irrelevant since they can never realistically win the majority of the votes in an entire State. Instead, the voter is usually left with two or three flavours. Secondly, the system more often than not discourages participation. Around 80% of U.S. States usually have quite a predictable voting trend, and since only the winning party receives an electoral reward, other voters may be more inclined to abstain from participating in an election. In other words, the system causes political apathy.

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt