Back in March a CBS/New York Times Poll placed Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the two most unfavorable candidates in American presidential history. Both candidates were deemed unfavorable by a majority of voters. Trump scored a 57% unfavorable rating compared to Clinton’s 52%. Despite these polls, one of these largely unpopular candidates will be elected president a week from today. Naturally, Americans feel frustrated by their poor choices and the electoral system that produced these results.
This electoral system that many Americans bemoan is the Electoral College, a system established in the Constitution that assigns electors to each state equal to the sum of their Senate and House of Representatives seats. The main reason for doing this was to create a “buffer between population and the selection of president”. The other reason was to ensure that a president could only win if he or she had support that was evenly distributed throughout the country. If the election was determined by popular vote, a candidate could simply concentrate on the biggest states and cities to win. However, with the Electoral College, a candidate with only regional support could never win the election based on electoral votes.
There are many valid reasons to criticize the Electoral College. First, the system is an inaccurate reflection of the nation’s will. The Electoral College can elect presidents who do not necessarily have a majority of the popular vote, such as in 2000. Within each state, whoever has the most electoral votes wins the entire state’s electors. This winner-take-all system is undemocratic, as it essentially nullifies a large number of voters in each state. Take California and Texas, for example. With proportional voting, 37.1% of the vote and about 20 electors would have gone to Romney in California and 41.4% of the vote and about 16 electors would have gone to Obama in Texas.
The second reason is that the winner-take-all system depresses voter turnout and discourages third parties. You often hear how a red vote does nothing to change the color of a blue state like California or New Jersey. Similarly, Democrats feel disenfranchised in deeply red states like Texas. It is also nearly impossible for any third-party candidate to win any electors because they must win an entire state.
In 2016, we are faced with a distinct voting dilemma. While many Americans believe a vote in their state will do nothing to change the outcome of their state’s electors, others think that abstaining will mean allowing the other candidate to win. What is the solution? The Electoral College provides a solution although a flawed one. The system has elected the popular vote winner every time, except for 4 instances. However, at each of these instances, the popular vote was close enough, where the results came down to whom had more widely distributed support.
The Electoral College will probably never be eliminated because this would require an amendment to the Constitution. Attempts to reform the system have consistently failed. Still, the winner-take-all rule is not mandated by the Constitution. Rather, it was created by partisan movements in the early 1800s to accumulate support in each state. If states work together towards reform, it is possible to rid the American electoral system of its winner-take-all feature. It would be a difficult task because the rule serves as a powerful tool for parties to accumulate support. One proposed idea is to have Republican and Democratic-leaning states eliminate the winner-take-all rule two at a time in order to ensure that the balance is not tipped in either party’s favor.
In the end, the winner-take-all system should be changed to make voting more democratic. It would also sustain the need to distribute a candidate’s support throughout the country. Even without the rule, the same standard would apply where a candidate with only regional support could never win the election.What would happen in the 2016 election if the rule was changed today? First, the rule change would not necessarily guarantee either candidate a victory, but frankly that should not be the point. The point is that the record-high dissatisfaction with the two presidential nominees points to a fundamental flaw in the American electoral system. Electoral reforms are needed to make the system more democratic and to alter the behavior of both candidates and voters.
Think of how you feel about your choices for president in the next 7 days. Picture this: an election in which the major parties’ nominees cared about every district in every state, where local campaigns in every district mattered, and where every vote mattered even if it went to a third party. It may require some hard work to get there but imagine that.