My husband and I were talking about the electoral college and our shared frustrations about it. I’ve felt this way for a very very long time. The following is a letter I sent to Senator Grassley in the spring of 1999… and I still had a copy of it saved on my computer! That summer I would gain the right to vote. That fall, I would cast my vote for George W. Bush, who won the election not because he won the popular vote, but because he won the electoral college. Even having had my candidate succeed, I still disagreed with how it came to happen. And I felt that way as a resident of a “sparsely populated state.” I’m in a different place today than I was then and support different political perspectives… and can’t help but call back to this letter when, yet again, a candidate has lost the popular vote, but won the electoral college.
March 21, 1999
Dear Senator Grassley,
In the fall of 2000, millions of Americans across the nation will be going to the polls to cast their vote for the next President. I am lucky enough to be one of those individuals who will be voting for the first time. Nothing excites me more than the opportunity to participate in one of the most essential elements in a democracy… the right to vote. I have already begun looking at candidates and deciding which one I think best represents my opinions and moral views. Just when I was getting into it, I realized I was wrong. I will not be voting for a President on November 7, 2000. Rather, I will be voting for a list of citizens who have ‘dedicated’ themselves to a particular candidate or party. I will be voting for electors in the Electoral College.
I had always believed that living in a democracy we should all have the right to vote, and that we should all be represented equally. I was extremely disappointed when I realized that this is not so. “The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address… can only mean one thing- one person, one vote” (Braun and Longley 15). This statement, made in the Gray vs. Sanders case, was what I had always envisioned democracy to be. One person, one vote. After all, we are a government of, by, and for the people. Why is it then that we must have this intermediate stage of the Electoral College? Not only is this process outdated but the small states actually have an advantage in many situations. Another aspect, called the unit system, is unrepresentative of the people’s vote. The current way that we elect our Presidents needs to be reformed or abolished.
The Electoral College was “merely a jerry-rigged improvisation…” says John P. Roche (qt. in Braun and Longley 22). It was the second choice to many from its creation. Some believed that Congress should elect the President and some thought that the direct vote of the people was the right way (Peirce 41). Nevertheless, at that time, the people of the United States were spread out and did not have means of communication. In fact, the candidates could not campaign because it would have taken years to inform the country about their stance, therefore, citizens were incompetent to elect a President. This was the reason that in that time, the elector system seemed to be the best plan. In today’s technological world, information travels around the world instantaneously and we are competent to make our own decisions. “What really moved the delegates to accept [it]… were certain practical considerations dictated not by political ideals but by the social realities of the time- realities that no longer exist” (Braun 25).
One of the biggest compromises in the Electoral College was over the populated states vs. sparse states controversy. The following are three ways in which the sparse states have gained not only equal footing, but also an advantage over populated states. In the original plan, formed by members of a special committee, the states would receive electors according to the number of representatives from both the House and the Senate. This benefited the sparse states because whereas Vermont would have had a 1:4 ratio vote with West Virginia based on population alone, the addition of the two votes made the ratio 3:6, or 1:2. Also, the national average for people per electoral vote is 333,314; however, some less populated states like Alaska and South Dakota have 75,389 and 170,129 respectively. Meanwhile, Kentucky and California are getting the short end of the stick because they have 337,573 and 392,930 respectively (Peirce 263).
Another aspect that the committee decided on was what to do if there was not a majority of votes for any given candidate. They concluded that the House of Representatives would decide the President. To protect the sparse states, each state only had one vote, regardless of population. Then they were on equal footing with the populated states and could not be outvoted.
One of the major concerns of sparse states is that if the Electoral College is changed, they will lose some of their edge and will not have any say in who gets to be President. The twelve largest states could indeed vote and take the election, but all of those states would have to agree unanimously with each other for that to happen. In the history of the United States, there has never been an instance where all of the sparse states were overruled by the populated states. No clear set of different interests has been shown in relation to size. Most of the disagreements are over ideas, economics, and regional issues. One politician has called it the “Great Irrelevancy” (Peirce 262). The truth of the matter is that if we did not have the Electoral College system, we would not even have to worry about what state a person was from. It would be one person, one vote.
One of the most undemocratic aspects of the entire Electoral College is the unit voting system. All of the states except for Maine are currently running under a system that gives all of the state’s electoral votes to the candidate with the state’s majority and none to any of the other candidates. In the 1960 election, Kennedy and Nixon won the two states of New York (45 votes) and California (32 votes) respectively. Although both of these individuals had nearly the same percentage in each state, Kennedy had a larger lead with seven votes, simply because he won the larger state (Peirce 138).
Candidates can easily gain votes by trying to look appealing to a certain group of people: a minority, special interest, or lobbyist group. These organized groups have immense bargaining power, especially in those large states with so many electoral votes at risk. They can dominate presidential campaigns, and invite fraud, corruption, illegal fundraising and such tactics to come into our governmental system (Peirce 152).
Another thing that the Electoral College unit system does is discourage voters from going to the polls. In “safe states” or states where there is an overwhelming majority of a party, either democratic or republican, why would someone want to vote? All of the votes of his state are going to the candidate anyway, so why vote? Furthermore, the party that is in the minority may not feel the need to vote because their votes will not count in the Electoral College. They will end up adding votes to the candidate they were voting against (Politics 94). In fact, from 1908-1945, 372 million votes were cast for presidential candidates. Forty-four percent of those votes, or 163 million, were minority votes that did not count (Peirce 138).
The unit system was added to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, but 13 states asked the Supreme Court to look over this system again and require the states to split their electoral votes to reflect the population (Peirce 190). According to this plan, the votes would be divided in each state according to the popular vote (Braun 49). It is an easily comprehendible solution, and at least two parties are encouraged in each state because the votes for minor parties are reflected. In addition, there would be less fraud because you would limit the power of organized minorities or interest groups (Braun 54). However, if we are going to change it this much, why not change it all the way?
The current way that we elect our Presidents needs to be reformed or abolished. Some will say, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” What they do not see is the imminent danger that occurs when there is a close election, like in 1992 where there were three major candidates (Carey). In the elections where a candidate had a 3% or less advantage on the opponent, 30% of the time, he was not elected. According to some experts, there is no better than a 50/50 chance that the President will be the candidate who won the popular vote (Goldstein 34). This is all due to the Electoral College. It was created as a compromise, but is now outdated. The sparse states are given too much power, when we should all be equal. The way that the electoral votes are given to the candidate is unrepresentative of the people in each state. Is this a system that you are willing to allow continue? Am I supposed to just sit back and let others decide for me, or will I actually be able to choose who the next President is? I urge you to bring this to the attention of others. It’s time for a change. It’s time to let the people vote.