Defining Democracy: Electoral College

It is November 6, 2024, and you’re anxiously awaiting the results of the most transformative election in your lifetime. Over the past six months, the country has been gripped by an intense presidential campaign as the candidates have crisscrossed America, from Ohio to California, Maine to Kentucky, New York to Arkansas. Americans have followed the race closely and excitedly discussed the major campaign issues.

But unlike many of your peers, you have gone beyond mere discussion or Twitter debates. You wanted to do everything you could to make a difference in this election, so you volunteered at a local campaign office. Some days, you went door-to-door with a clipboard in hand, informing people of the value of their vote and urging them to support your candidate. Other days, you were at the campaign office late into the night, calling voters on a seemingly endless list of names, each of which you saw as crucial to determining the fate of the nation.

Every morning, you were empowered by the passionate appeals of your candidate. She traversed the country for months to win people over, one vote at a time. Your spirits were buoyed national political ads, fueled by legions of small donors, urging you to keep up the fight. And on Election Day, you proudly joined your friends and neighbors to cast your ballot at the polling station. 

And finally, after months of tireless work, that fateful night has arrived. Your eyes are glued to the TV for hours as results pour in from across the nation. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, your candidate is declared the winner!! You are overwhelmed with pride as you learn that a record turnout has elevated her to the nation’s highest office, knowing that all of your tireless days and sleepless nights made a difference. You drift off to sleep as the President-elect delivers her acceptance speech in front of a massive crowd, warmed by the sight of the first female Commander-in-Chief.

Unfortunately, this moment of euphoria was merely a dream. 

In reality, you had gone to sleep when the race was too close to call. And when you woke up, you realized that your candidate had lost despite winning a majority of the votes. What’s more, this is the fourth time this has happened in your lifetime. Like the elections in 2000, 2016, and 2020, the person who won the popular vote lost the Presidency after narrowly losing a handful of battleground states. All of your hard work as a campaign volunteer may have made a difference in the popular vote, but clearly this did not translate to a difference in the electoral college. Instead, the results in your state were decided regardless of how many voters you convinced. You live in New York, after all, where there hasn’t been a close presidential election in decades. 

Having now seen not one, not two, not three, but four candidates win the Presidency despite having won only a minority of votes, you are left with the unmistakable feeling that our democracy is irrevocably broken. You have had enough. 

In reality, our country isn’t quite at this point yet. But the winners of two of the last five elections (40%) actually lost the popular vote, and we’re well on our way to seeing this number continue to increase if significant reforms aren’t adopted.

But first, what is the Electoral College?

The presidential selection process that assigns each state a group of electoral votes equal to its number of representatives in Congress. Each state’s electors then cast these votes for a candidate who won a majority of voters in their state. The first candidate to reach 270 of these electoral votes wins. In short, citizens do not directly choose the President but rather guide the choices of a select few.

Why is this system a problem? Well, as our story illustrated, it has deprived tens of millions of Americans a meaningful say in their democracy. Instead of seeking the approval of voters nationwide, this system incentivizes candidates to adopt narrow strategies designed to capture the most electoral votes, which are concentrated in a small but influential group of states commonly known as battleground states. If you live outside of these states, candidates for President tend to take your vote for granted. It’s common knowledge that New York will almost always vote for the Democrat while Mississippi will almost always vote for the Republican. As a result, a recent poll has found that nearly two-thirds of the country believe that their votes do not matter. 

Despite these issues, some have argued that true reform isn’t possible. They note that such a change would need to be implemented through a new constitutional amendment, which requires two thirds approval in both the House and Senate as well as ratification by three fourths of states. 

But at the state level, officials are working around this hurdle. To reform this system, over 15 states have joined an agreement known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, where each member has pledged to award all of its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. According to the compact, once the number of signatories total 270 of these votes, the winner of the popular vote will automatically win the Presidency. And we are close! If states totaling just 74 more electoral votes sign on, the National Popular Vote could become a reality. 

Regardless of the specifics, some reform of the Electoral College is essential to represent all voters and preserve the legitimacy of our democracy. Some politicians and pundits, however, oppose any changes to the system, arguing that it would deprive smaller, rural states of a voice in the presidential election. They assert that populous urban areas would achieve a decisive advantage and use it to override the wishes of an increasingly disillusioned minority. But this argument has some significant flaws to it. First of all, it assumes that rural & urban voters vote as a bloc, which they don’t. Second, it essentially prioritizes land over people. Right now, a vote in Wyoming carries 3.6 times more weight than a vote in California. This is a blatant violation of the principle that the votes of all American citizens should have equal weight.

Furthermore, the Electoral College system, at least partially, originated with Southern leaders during the Constitutional Convention. They feared that their rural, sparsely-populated states would be disadvantaged in presidential elections. As a result, they demanded a system that would tip the scales in their favor, leading to the establishment of the Electoral College. 

Last, the founders designed this body to allow a small, informed group of men to choose the President instead of the citizenry, whom they saw as unqualified to do so. Without this safeguard, they feared that foreign powers could secretly promote a puppet to the highest office in our land. Today, however, the electors no longer serve this purpose; they vote directly in accordance with the people, rather than limit their excesses. The Electoral College clearly was not designed with this function in mind, so why continue to use it? 

Reforming the Electoral College is necessary to creating an electoral system where our votes matter. Indeed, our country is much more democratic today than at the founding when only white propertied men had access to the franchise. Our voting system must reflect these changes, so citizens, like our hypothetical New York Republican or Democrat do not lose faith in our democracy. 

It is up to us to make this happen; we must encourage our representatives to pass electoral reforms. The future of our democracy is in our hands.

Aaro Berhane

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