Monday, January 15, 2007

The Travesty of the Electoral College

The Electoral College, a set of electors empowered to elect the President of the United States, is an institution outlined in the Constitution. Its purpose is to uphold democracy in presidential elections, primarily by empowering less populous states. In effect, however, it has curtailed America’s democratic capabilities, and undermined the legitimacy of presidential elections.

The founding fathers feared mobocracy. They were of the opinion that a simple majority would not effectively uphold democratic standards in the United States. They thought that such a system would inevitably lead to factions galvanizing partisan politics that had no relevance to the real issues affecting America. To combat such from occurring, the founding fathers instituted the Electoral College, a system whereby states were apportioned votes determinant on population, and electors from each of the states decided who to support in presidential elections. It was, and still is, deemed common practice for the electors of each state to choose the candidate that has garnered the most votes in the states through popular election. The system was designed to ensure that all states, even those of insignificant populations, were able to influence the presidential election. Indeed, under the current Electoral College system present, small states do have reasonable power in influencing elections. The benefit of this, however, is undermined by the undemocratic characteristics that the Electoral College procures.

The most profound of these characteristics is the exclusion of an influential third party in American politics. Such a failing inhibits democracy in the United States. The two dominant parties, the Grand Old Party and the Democratic Party, have a monopoly on national elections, forcing voters to choose between candidates whose views might not be in accordance with their own. The presence of a third or fourth party that has national repute would, while holding the two major parties accountable, allow Americans to choose between a wider range of candidates, allowing issues to be decided on not as a result of partisanship, but of discussion. Since 1857 there has been no American president who did not belong to either of the two major parties, a glaring example of the deficiencies presented by the Electoral College.

The Electoral College eliminates the presence of a powerful third party by the presence of the institution itself, as opposed to a parliamentary system of election. All states, excluding Nebraska and Maine, assign votes to candidates on an all-or-nothing basis. This means that if a candidate wins, for example, 51% of the vote in a state, he earns all of the state’s electoral votes, regardless of the votes of the other 49%. Such disenfranchisement of vast swathes of voters eliminates any chance of a third party candidate winning the presidency. The most glaring example in recent history occurred in the 1992 presidential elections. Ross Perot, member of the Reform Party, won almost 20% of the vote nationwide. Yet he did not win a single state in the Electoral College. If third parties do not have hope of winning national elections, they cannot garner support enough to effectively advocate their views. The Electoral College disallows views from being presented in American politics, and ensures the continuation of the inefficient two-party system. Madison advocated the presence of multiple factions in order to best preserve democracy. Unfortunately, the Electoral College compromises that.

The disenfranchisement that results from the Electoral College also undermines democracy in the United States. Huge amounts of voters are denied representation due to the winner-take-all system. Accordingly, voter participation is affected, as voters assume their votes do not matter and thus do not participate. For example, the Electoral College discourages voter participation by Democratic voters in Republican dominated Texas. As such, the views of Americans are not appropriately communicated. Additionally, it is possible under an Electoral College system for the winner of the presidential election to not have received the most votes in an election. The 2000 election, between Governor George W. Bush and Vice-President Al Gore, illustrated the failings of the Electoral College. Al Gore won the majority of the votes, yet due to the Electoral College system, Bush won the presidency. It is in the interests of democracy for the most widely supported candidate to win the presidential election. For a candidate who won the majority of the votes to lose the election is a travesty. Yet the supposedly democracy-protecting system that is the Electoral College allows such to take place.

Supporters of the Electoral College claim that the institution ensures that candidates campaign in the “boon-docks.” This, supporters say, ensures that the views of all Americans are heard and have some semblance of influence. One cannot make this claim, however, considering the absence of an influential third party. To say that due to the Electoral College system the views of all Americans are taken into account assumes that the views of all Americans are in accordance with one of the two major political parties. Such a view, illustrated by the 1992 election, is fallacious. And indeed, that the occurrence of “faithless electors” additionally compromises the view that the system ensures all Americans of a say. Faithless electors are those that cast their state’s Electoral College votes in their own interests, as opposed to the interests of the majority of the state’s voters. On 20 occasions electors have cast an electoral vote for a candidate other than the candidate they have pledged to elect. The presidential election of the United States cannot be considered democratic if it is dependent on the whims of states’ electors.

Reform of the Electoral College system is desperately needed. The best solution is to scrap the institution entirely, allowing popular vote to determine the presidency. Such a system would encourage voter participation, allow for an influential third party, and ensure that the election process is entirely democratic. Such reform, however, is hard to come by. Indeed, it is near impossible to do away with the Electoral College. A reform of the system would require a constitutional amendment. To pass such an amendment is a daunting task, especially considering that it would need the support of the smaller states that the Electoral College helps most. Additionally, the Republican and Democratic parties will be reticent to embrace measures of reform as the Electoral College ensures that their power will not be challenged.

Regardless of the difficulties inherent in reforming the dated and ineffective system, reform is imperative. Democracy is compromised in America as a result of the Electoral College system, which means that millions of Americans are not being effectively and appropriately represented in national government. The failure of the Electoral College is apparent and only elimination of the entire system will save American democracy from the partisanship and exclusiveness that exists so prevalently today.