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Every four years Americans are sold on a set of ideas. Not just about the candidates they vote for, or the platforms they espouse, but also about the values of the country that they live in. American presidential elections can make our democracy appear a lot more democratic than it really is.
How is it that the candidates who won the popular vote in 2000 and 2016 lost both elections? How is it that Vice President Joe Biden will need to win around 4.5 million more votes than President Trump to have a three in four chance of winning the White House?
The answer, of course, lies in the Electoral College. Founded in 1787, this institution has overridden the will of the American majority five times in the past two centuries. In 1960, John Kennedy won the popular vote by only a margin of 0.17 percent, yet he won the Electoral College by 303 votes to Richard Nixon’s 219.
As it is, the system we have apportions electors based on how many representatives a state has in Congress. Each state starts with at least three electors because each state has two senators and at least one congressional representative in its delegation.
This skews the College’s math, so that taken together the nation’s least populated states — Alaska, Vermont, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota — collectively have as many Electoral College votes as Ohio — even though their combined population is only 4.6 million people to Ohio’s 11.7 million.
Throughout the 21st century, this skew toward states with smaller, whiter and more rural populations has given Republicans a huge institutional advantage during presidential elections. It has also tainted national politics by rewarding Republicans for using a political strategy that relies, in part, on stoking white racial resentment.
Yet concerns about the Electoral College aren’t new.
In 1969, the Electoral College was nearly abolished after reformers passed a constitutional amendment through the House of Representatives by the astonishing margin of 338 to 70. Unfortunately, in early 1970, this amendment was killed on the Senate floor during a filibuster put on by a group of segregationist lawmakers.
The segregationists were worried that in a system where everybody’s vote counted equally, white majorities in their states wouldn’t be able to negate the impact of minority voters through the Electoral College. In this regard, it’s important to note that in 48 states — the exceptions being Maine and Nebraska — a winner-take-all formula is currently in place, so that even if a candidate wins over a slim majority of a state’s voters, they win 100 percent of its Electoral College delegates.
If this generation of Americans want to see their nation become more egalitarian, more democratic and more just, then the Electoral College has got to go. Should Biden triumph on Nov. 3, the Democratic Party needs to prioritize this issue, as well as the issue of democratization more broadly.
Many people tend to think of the United States as a mature democracy, yet even in 2020 there’s still a lot of work to do.