The Electoral College and Other Voting Issues, 2020

[Note that I posted a shorter form of this article some time ago. I have slightly revised it and expanded it with two emerging issues, treated briefly toward the conclusion. I post it on a primary day for four states, but one of them is not voting today because of one of those issues.]


After two presidential elections in the last two decades with the candidate that lost the popular vote winning the electoral college vote, and hence the presidency, there is much discussion about whether the electoral college has outlived its usefulness. There were three much earlier elections where that happened, but there was never a gap between the popular and electoral totals like that in 2016. Candidate Clinton led in the popular total by 2,854,903 votes (65,845,063 to 62,980,160), while candidate Trump won the electoral vote by 74 (306 to 232). Clinton beat Trump in the popular vote by 2.1%; Trump beat Clinton in the electoral vote by 14%.


In 2000, the gap between Bush and Gore was thin. In the popular vote, Gore won by .5%; in the electoral vote, Bush won by 5 votes, just 1% more than Gore. The determination of the Bush-Gore contest finally went to the Supreme Court and was decided there by one vote; a 5-4 decision stopped any further recounting of the Florida vote. In one sense, one state decided that election. In another sense, one Supreme Court justice decided which candidate would be president. The final Florida vote, as determined by the Supreme Court in that 5-4 decision, had Bush winning by 537 votes out of almost 6,000,000 votes cast. Florida has 25 electoral votes. A fair split might have had Florida’s electoral votes cast 13 for Bush and 12 for Gore, reflecting how close the popular vote was. That would have had the candidate winning the national popular vote also winning the electoral vote. Even if Florida’s electoral votes were split 20 for Bush and five for Gore, Gore would have become president.


Trump gets credit for campaigning better than Clinton in targeting several “in doubt” states. As the matter of the electoral college stands now, over 40 states are not in play in most presidential elections. They are reliably blue (Democrat) or reliably red (Republican) states. There is occasionally a landslide (Nixon in 1972, Johnson in 1964, and Reagan in 1984) in which the great majority of states vote for the same candidate, but there hasn’t been a landslide in over three decades. Generally, a handful of states determine which candidate will be president. In 2000 it was one state; in 2016 it was three states.


I have lived in three states as a voting American. All three reliably vote one way, which means a smart candidate has no reason to pay much attention to the state in which I now live, New York. The so-called purple states (such as Florida and Pennsylvania) get the attention. It is said that Trump won largely by beating Clinton in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin by a cumulative total of 77,000 votes. That means that, usually, my vote doesn’t much count. After the primary season, the two major party candidates have no need to visit my state, with its 29 electoral votes.


It seems to me that this is counter to what a democracy ought to be and do. Some argue that the electoral college protects the citizens that don’t live in major cities. In fact, it gives their votes more weight. I think that every vote ought to receive the same voting value: one person, one vote. When the electoral college was established, only white landowning men could vote. Women couldn’t vote. Blacks couldn’t vote. Renters couldn’t vote. Fortunately, though taking much too long, we righted those wrongs and gave all citizens the right to vote, which is democracy 101.

My vote should count the same as a rural vote in Montana or an urban vote in New York City. I live in a suburb of Rochester, NY, which puts me in neither a major city nor a rural town. I simply want my vote to count as much as any other American’s vote; not more and not less. This shouldn’t be a matter of which voting system favors Republicans or Democrats. It should be a matter of voting equality.


It seems to me there are three ways to make electing presidents more fair. The first is to scrap the electoral college and go to a national popular vote. We have already done that for our senators with statewide popular votes. They were once elected by state legislatures; now they are elected by popular vote. It seems to be working fine this way.


The second is to do away with “winner takes all” voting. Maine and Nebraska already do that. Hence, there is incentive for a candidate that might not win all the electors in Nebraska to try to win some of them. The obvious way to do this would be to use congressional districts. Of course, there is controversy about extreme partisan gerrymandering, which lets the majority party in the state government divide congressional districts to favor their interests. Both parties have been guilty of extreme partisan gerrymandering. That troubles me, but doing away with winner takes all statewide voting would still be an improvement over the current system. Candidates would have motivation to visit states where they may not win a majority of the votes, but could win some of the electors.


The third way is to have a state’s electoral votes committed to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote. For that to happen, states with electors totaling 270 would have to agree to it. Currently, states with electors totaling 197 have endorsed this approach.


North Dakota has about 760,000 residents and three electors. That means each North Dakota elector represents about 253,000 people. New York has 19,540,000 residents and 29 electors. That mean each New York elector represents about 673,000 people. That is unfair.


I don’t believe that areas of land should have votes. Acreage should not have votes. If I live on ½ acre and my neighbor lives on 10 acres, his or her vote should not count more than mine. Only citizens should have votes: one citizen=one vote. Rural votes should not count more than urban votes. Small state votes should not have more weight than large state votes. Each citizen voting should get one vote and all votes count for the same value. I believe the founders had reasons for choosing indirect voting. But they also thought they had good reasons to prohibit women and blacks and non-land owners from voting. Time has shown us better ways. We have moved toward a “more perfect union,” guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote and have their votes count, enlarging our understanding of being a democratic republic. I believe it is time to change or eliminate the electoral system now in place. One person, one vote sounds sensible, practical, and fair to me.


The 2020 primary season has also introduced two concerns in our voting. The first is early voting. In several of the Democratic party primaries, early votes in considerable numbers were cast for candidates that dropped out before the day of the primary. Perhaps early voting should be limited to one week before the day of the primary. Of course, a candidate could still drop out in that week, but it seems to me far better than allowing people to vote a month early.


The second is highlighted in an unfortunate way by the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states are delaying their long-planned primaries because of public health concerns. Should we be moving toward more by-mail voting?


Fair and honest voting procedures are crucial to the health of a democracy. We should everything we can to make sure that voting is fair and honest and the will of the voters prevails in all our elections.

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