by Akaash Babu
The 2016 election saw a lot of outrage at the seemingly undemocratic result of the electoral college. Many questioned the democracy of a system that rendered such an undemocratic result. But the reality is that the Electoral College was designed to be undemocratic.
Alexander Hamilton (in Federalist Paper no. 68) explained how the Electoral College originally worked: electors from each state, designed to be the smartest and most politically involved of the state’s government, would be chosen to convene at a location in each state and all cast their votes for one candidate. Then, each state’s electors would gather at a national convention to cast their votes, with each state casting all their votes for one candidate and the individual who won the most votes becoming president.
This system wasn’t meant to foster a healthy democracy involving the people. In fact, it was explicitly designed undemocratically; a way by which the members of each state’s political and social establishment would control the country, not the people. Hamilton justifies this in Federalist Paper no. 68 by claiming a popular election would be susceptible to influence from foreign interest and fast-talking populists. By entrusting the job to a dedicated set of informed men, the presidency would be one for intelligent, capable individuals, not just for capable orators.
Obviously, the system we use today is a much more democratic one, with the modern presidential electoral system attributable to the Founding Fathers given the responsibility of choosing their electors to the states. Using this power, the states converted to using a popular election to pick whom their electors would vote for. This bending of the inherently undemocratic electoral college to suit the ideals of democracy is akin to hammering a square peg into a circular hole; it just doesn’t work. Although the Electoral College might seem democratic, because its foundations are still designed around being a convention of the political elite and not a democracy, it has many glaring issues that make it extremely undemocratic.
Perhaps its most glaring undemocracy is the advantage it gives to smaller states; in its inception, this advantage was supposed to be a concession to the lesser populated of the original 13 states, as every state is guaranteed 3 electors no matter their population. This means that the power of smaller states in the electoral college is disproportionately large. For example, Wyoming has 577,737 people and 3 electoral votes, meaning around 190,000 people per electoral vote, while California has 39.56 million people and 55 electoral votes, meaning around 740,000 people per electoral vote. This is still a major argument in favor of the electoral college today; it supposedly ensures that smaller states aren’t trampled over by bigger states and that rural, America isn’t trampled over by the urban elite.
But the borders of a state aren’t designed to divide rural America from the urban states. Instead, we have many small states with a predominantly rural makeup (such as Wyoming), many with a predominantly urban makeup (such as Rhode Island or Delaware), and many others with a more mixed makeup (such as Nevada). On top of this, many rural Americans live in larger states, such as Texas and California. In the case of the latter, millions of rural Californians have their votes overpowered by the liberal coasts, going completely against this purported “feature” of the electoral college. This fact that the state borders aren’t based on dividing these rural areas from urban areas, or marginalized areas from privileged areas indicates that the advantages given by the Electoral College don’t go towards helping any socioeconomic group of Americans. Instead, they simply go towards helping small states, who have a myriad of people living in their borders. As a result, instead of helping a particular group, the Electoral College instead gives an undemocratic advantage to a random selection of the populace. After all, what else do Wyoming and Delaware have in common other than being small states?
Let’s take a deeper look at California. Contrary to popular belief, California has millions of Republican voters and used to be a predominantly Republican state up until the late 1990s (but that’s a whole different rabbit hole.) In 2016, the state had 4 and a half million Republican voters in the presidential election. But thanks to the winner-take-all system that the electoral college uses, because there were more Democratic voters in the presidential election it gave all of its 55 electoral college votes to Hillary Clinton. This is the second major issue with the electoral college: its winner-take-all system that awards ALL a state’s electoral votes to the candidate that wins a plurality of the votes means that large sections of the American population don’t get their voices heard due to their location and the other voters near their location.
In California, this fault of the electoral college meant that the 4 and a half million Trump votes in 2016 didn’t actually count towards anything of matter. That’s more Trump votes than in the states of Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, West Virginia, Nebraska, Utah, Kansas, and Arkansas combined. But while the Republican voters in California had their votes wasted, the Republican voters of these small states had their voices heard. Often, these voters shared socioeconomic statuses, yet by sheer virtue of where they live in relation to a centuries-old line of demarcation, some got their voices heard and some didn’t.
This winner take all system and the advantage that the electoral college gives to smaller states mean that a candidate who wins the smaller states by close margins wins against one that wins larger states by overwhelming margins, even if they lose the popular vote. This isn’t democracy. Instead, it’s the arbitrary overpowering of certain groups of people. By having certain voters of a state overpower others and by having certain states overpower others, the electoral college violates every basic democratic ideal.