The author has declared no conflict of interest in writing this opinion piece, aside from a very strong interest in American politics and elections.
This year’s United States (U.S.) presidential election showdown between President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump was one of the most anticipated political events of 2020. It is also an election that will go down in U.S. history for a number of reasons, including the highest voter turn-out in over a century, the Biden/Harris presidential ticket receiving the most votes cast in the nation’s history, and the ongoing counting and re-counting of voter ballots. Indeed, the voter participation rate of the 2020 election is an incredible feat by U.S. standards where voting is not compulsory. However, the people of the U.S. faced the possibility that despite receiving more votes (over five million more), President-elect Joe Biden could have lost the race for the White House to President Donald Trump. This is because the U.S. uses an Electoral College voting system for the election of the President.
For those of us who are not familiar with the U.S. democratic system, it is a struggle to understand how a majority of individual votes does not guarantee someone election to political office. In this opinion piece, I am going to explain how the U.S. Electoral College works and why I think it is inconsistent with democracy. I have primarily drawn on academic research on the 2016 U.S. presidential election to inform my arguments, as the recent 2020 elections results have not yet been academically examined.
But first, let’s explore how the Electoral College voting system works.
The Electoral College system of the U.S. is a democratic anomaly – no other democratic country uses it or a similar system to elect their head of state. This is because the U.S. constitution prevents the election of President being subject to popular election, i.e. by receiving a majority of individual votes.
Under the Electoral College system, each state in the U.S. receives a number of ‘electors’. The number is based on its congressional delegation and senate delegation:
There are a couple of key issues with the Electoral College voting system. Firstly, smaller states are over-represented in the Electoral College with the inclusion of the senate delegation. Secondly, it restricts the ability of the American people to elect their presidential candidate by a national voting majority. This is how we saw Donald Trump securing an electoral victory in 2016, despite receiving fewer popular votes from the people – also known as an Electoral College inversion.
To demonstrate the issues with the Electoral College voting system, let’s take a look at the states of Wyoming and California. For the 2016 election, Trump won the state of Wyoming with 68 per cent of the popular vote, while Clinton won California 62 per cent of the vote (Nichols, 2020). Wyoming is the least populated state in the U.S., so Trump only required 58,140 votes in order to secure each of Wyoming’s three electoral votes. However, California is the most populated state in the U.S., so Clinton needed 159,160 votes in order secure each of the 50 of California’s 55 electoral votes (Nichols, 2020).
On the surface this might not seem like a significant issue but consider that this example highlights how a candidate can campaign vigorously in a smaller state such as Wyoming to gain an edge in the Electoral College voting system. Smaller states can allow candidates with minimal political credibility and experience to secure a path to the White House without having to rely on winning the majority of popular votes across the nation.
The Electoral College voting system also skews the efforts of presidential campaigns. For example, while smaller states such as Wyoming and Idaho increase an inexperienced candidate’s chances of securing an Electoral College victory due to there being less people, a lot of campaigning takes place in the eight largest states. This is because California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan make up 207 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the Electoral College.
The Electoral College voting system also encourages presidential candidates to spend a disproportionate amount of time and resources in ‘swing states’ that contain undecided votes, instead of appealing to the nation as a whole. These ‘swing-states’ are critical in attaining the 270 electoral votes.
Trump’s election campaign strategy in 2016 relied heavily on ‘swing state’ campaigning. Trump’s campaign rhetoric about resenting global trade agreements and the decline of American manufacturing pandered too and resonated with poorer and unemployed white male voters across the ‘rust belt’ states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Although Trump’s campaign won the popular vote in all three states with only a margin of less than 1 per cent in each state, these ‘swing states’ were crucial in cementing Trump’s Electoral College victory over Clinton.
Academics are concerned that the emphasis on presidential campaigning in ‘swing states’ has led to a growing gap in voter-turnout when comparing swing states and non-swing states (see ‘The Electoral College Debate Preserve, Abolish, or Reform?’ 2017 Supreme Court Debates, Vol. 69, no. 1, pp. 1-3).
Overall, we can see how the Electoral College system leads presidential candidates to a focus on select states, rather than building a broad voter appeal across the nation. The electoral outcome in 2016 is the fourth time in U.S. election history that a nominee won the popular vote but did not attain the 270 Electoral College votes needed, also occurring in 1876, 1888 and 2000. The Electoral College voting system continues to be debated in the U.S. My view is that the Electoral College voting system is not only inconsistent with democracy but undermines the very idea that individual votes matter in a democratic system.