An impediment to democracy

The Electoral College distorts the equality of votes.

by Derek Olson

If you want your vote to make a difference, you should probably move to Ohio or Florida. President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney are fiercely battling for these swing states, and history shows this to be a solid campaign strategy. In the last 12 presidential elections, no candidate has won without Ohio, and only one candidate has won without Florida.

This is the real effect of the Electoral College. The issue is not just about situations such as the 2000 election when George W. Bush won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote. Some find complacency in the fact that the Electoral College usually gets it right, but why should we settle for usually? Bush was actually the fourth president in our history to be elected after losing the popular vote. So called “wrong” winners merit frustration, but they’re not the only thing wrong with the Electoral College. This egregious system creates deep inequality in the entire democratic process.

So far this year, the Romney and Obama campaigns have combined to spend $200 million on TV advertising in Ohio and Florida alone. In California and Texas, where more than twice as many Americans live, not $1 has been spent. In 2004 during peak election season, 52 percent of all campaign spending took place in just three states, and in 2008, the 14 states with the closest margins received 99 percent of campaign stops.

Proponents of the Electoral College believe it helps small states because the minimum electors per state are three, regardless of population. In Wyoming, one elector represents 165,000 people. In California, one elector represents 616,000. This argument must supply an addendum. Why do small states deserve special treatment? It is puzzling that an unequal distribution of votes can be construed as the benefit of our election process. Moreover, this argument is debunked when we realize that the Electoral College usually diminishes the influence of small states.

The small states’ argument goes on to say that it forces candidates to appeal to a broader audience and a wider geographic representation. Au contraire, this is laughably wrong. The Electoral College causes candidates to completely disregard small states, even large states, too, and focus on a narrow representation of competitive swing states.

Consider the nation’s least populated state, Wyoming, which hasn’t voted for a Democrat in 48 years and where Obama lost by more than 30 percent in 2008. Under the plausible assumption that he will not win Wyoming in 2012, he has no incentive to campaign here at all. With 100 percent of the vote sealed up, neither does Romney have reason to campaign in Wyoming.

The impact reaches further than campaigns. States like Wyoming have little or no influence on politicians, even those whom they support. In 2004, George W. Bush’s campaign polled constituents to shape his platform; however, more than 30 states were not included in his polls. Somehow that doesn’t sound like candidates are appealing to a broader audience and wider geographic base. In truth, neither Republicans nor Democrats have anything to gain by serving politically homogenous states because the winner takes all. A shift of 1 million votes in Texas would not have changed the 2000 election. Six-hundred votes in Florida gave the victory to George Bush. Under a popular vote, that would not have been the case.

Rural voters further worry that urban, highly populous states would dominate elections under a popular vote. This fear is prominent among Republicans who tend to be more favored in rural areas. However, these voters have nothing to worry about. Democrats and Republicans have won the popular vote an equal number of times going back eight, 12, 16, 22 and 26 elections. Even under the implausible situation that one candidate received 100 percent of the vote in the nation’s eight biggest states, he would still lack a majority of the population. Under the popular vote, candidates would have to expand their campaigns far beyond a few swing states. All votes would be equal, and candidates would have an incentive to win more votes in every state.

The Electoral College is believed by some to promote a stable two-party system. We can look to gubernatorial elections, which go by popular vote to see that an electoral vote is not a requisite. In nearly 1,000 governor races since World War II, no winning candidate received less than 35 percent of the popular vote, and since the reconstruction era, only 22 governors have been unaffiliated with a major party.

In addition, the Electoral College has a provision that is an accident waiting to happen. In the event that no candidate receives a majority of Electoral College votes, the House of Representatives votes for the president. In fact, this accident happened in 1824 when Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and the electoral vote. However, four candidates split the electoral vote resulting in no candidate carrying at least half. The decision went to the House who voted in John Quincy Adams, and Jackson spent years crying foul play. Does this controversial process preserve political stability?

The Electoral College is filled with problems; most egregious among them is the inequality it has cultivated in our democratic process. It depresses civic participation and representation in all but a few arbitrary swing states. The popular vote is not a partisan policy; it is for believers in democracy. No issue should unify Americans more than ensuring the fairness and equal value of our votes.