For the second time this century, which is only sixteen years old, the popular vote in an American presidential election, which is theoretically “the will of the people,” has not lined up with the electoral vote to determine a winner. It happened in the very first year of the century, 2000, when Al Gore got more than a half million more votes than George W. Bush. And of course, 2016 will go down in history as Hillary Clinton has, so far, received over a million more votes than Donald Trump, a gap that will grow as the final ballots from California and Washington, where she won in landslides, are added to the total.
You’re reading the comments of a former high school history teacher, so I have an informed opinion. I am also the resident of a “battleground” state which was absolutely bombarded by television advertising and campaigning. The candidates and their surrogates held no less than 15 separate rallies and meetings in this general area. That sheds some light on this issue.
The Electoral College was the result of negotiations resulting in a balance of state-based and population-based government. The United States, emerging from a confusing period under the inadequate Articles of Confederation, which failed because states were too powerful, and which created conflicts that left the smaller states subject to the larger ones, was looking for a way to satisfy the state legislative bodies, which would, as a whole, ratify the constitution, and those who wanted a purer, more populist based government with weaker states. The representative body, Congress, was balanced by staggered terms, two years for the House, six for the Senate, all directly elected by constituents, while the Presidency would be more subject to state by state preferences. That reassured smaller states, especially those in the South, and eventually led to the ratification of the Constitution.
While arguments in favor of the use of the Electoral College tend to emphasize the “equalization” it brings to smaller states, the fact that the number of electors in a state is based on the total number of its members in Congress means that every state has at least three votes. This means that general election votes for Americans across the board are not equal in their effect on the Presidential election outcome. It takes fewer voters in Wyoming, which has three votes, to choose their electors than it does in California, which has 55. So in Wyoming, a general ballot vote is worth more than one in California, or in any other state, for that matter.
The other argument that is used in favor of retaining the Electoral College is that it prevents the campaign from just focusing on the most populous areas, and brings it into different states and regions of the country. That was true to a large degree when the electoral map was not predictable, up into the later part of the 20th century. But shifts in demographics have created large majorities for each party in most states that are now considered “reliable” for one or the other. So the focus of election campaigns comes down to a handful of states that are not predictable, and these are pretty reliable from year to year. Florida holds the record for most Presidential campaign visits in the 21st century, followed by Ohio. Pennsylvania sees a lot of campaigning, while neighboring West Virginia, or New York, rarely even hear a commercial.
If you really want to compare the inequity in the value of the votes of individual Americans because of the Electoral College, think of it this way. Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in California by 2.5 million votes, the widest numerical margin in any state. But those 2.5 million votes have far less individual and collective impact on the election than the margin of less than 125,000 votes in two states, Florida and Pennsylvania, who collectively have the electoral votes to change the election outcome. 2.5 million voters in California turned out to produce 55 electoral votes, while 125,000 voters in the two battleground states produced 49 electoral votes. Any way you look at it, that’s certainly not the intention of the founding fathers with regard to the influence of the Electoral College.
If an election is an expression of “the will of the people,” then each American vote must be equal. The Electoral College is not meeting the practical test that is being played out in the 21st century. It is showing its age. So is the method prescribed for drawing Congressional districts. Democrats have received a majority of the total vote for Congress in each election in the 21st century except 2010, when they lost by a narrow 1%, but lost more than 30% of their seats in Congress. Even in the mid-term election of 2014, when Democrats lost even more seats, they won more votes. So if votes are an expression of the will of the people, our election quirks that were once designed as checks and balances, are too easily corrupted to give us the results that square up with the voters.
So while we talk all the time about elections in America being one person, one vote, the fact of the matter is that through our history, particularly in our formative years, the fear of domination by the more populous states, or the more populous areas, tempered the principle to the point where a system was devised to appease the smaller states in order to get them to go along with the whole think. The price tag of compromise was for those in larger states to give up some of the power of their votes to strengthen the hand of the smaller states. Over the course of 250 or so years of history, population growth, expansion, migration, and demographic shifts due to massive influxes of immigrants and ethnic minorities, changed the map so much that the practical balances created in 1789 by thirteen states with just a couple million people don’t work out as well in 50 states populated by 320 million. The difference between “big” and “small” states in 1789 could be counted in tens of thousands, while the difference in 2016 is 35 million. That skews the value of each American vote considerably.
What we have, in terms of demographics, is an increasingly urban and suburban population, and a declining rural population. I’ve seen maps and diagrams that herald the thousands of “red” counties all over the country, and the few blue spots here and there, mostly centered on large cities. Impressive though they may be, the fact of the matter is that in most cases, it takes several hundred of those red counties to even come close to equal the population of just one of the blue ones. Proportionately, more than 65% of the American people, and the voters, live in those blue counties, not the red ones.
The idea is to have a system that equalizes the vote, not one that skews it. The issues that affect Americans and the impact of education, industry, the job market, and government, have on the American people will be felt in the cities and urban areas, not in rural counties with scattered population and more goats than human beings. To put it in perspective, almost 75% of the campaign resources, and about that much of the candidates’ time, was spent in just three states–Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, and as absentee ballots and hand counts trickle in, the difference between the two can be boiled down to about 35,000 votes in five counties in four states, or fewer than that if Florida is one of them. If the outcome depended on the popular vote, narrow as it might be, it would not be that narrow.
It is time for Congress to consider a change. The culture and dynamics of the relationships of the states no longer warrant the kind of “equalizing” effect of the Electoral College. The time has arrived for “one American, one vote.”