Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Some of the vagaries of the US Electoral College system

Every time the USA has a presidential election, there are various articles in the press explaining how the electoral college system works (I tried one back in 2016). This is partly because many people, American amd non-American alike, just don't understand it. But it's partly because people can't believe that that one of the world largest, oldest and most influential democracies has an electoral system that is so creaky, so antiquated, and so open to abuse.

Setting aside the scary stuff that can happen if there is a tied vote, or if one candidate refuses to accept the results of the election, which I have already looked into recently, this huge and powerful democratic nation is subject to the whim and apparent whimsy of some distinctly undemocratic rules that those Founding Fathers saw fit to institute, and that the country has not bothered to - or perhaps not dared to - fix since.

The actual vote - the one that so many people will be glued to tonight even though it is very unlikely that a definitive result will be available tonight, what with postal voting and all - is only part of the process, and does not automatically decide who becomes president. As often as not, the candidate who wins the popular vote may not win the election (as Hilary Clinton found to her cost in 2016).

The actual decision is made by 538 people called electors, who together make up the Electoral College, and who won't actually vote until mid-December. These electors may be just regular folks - teachers, fire-fighters, lawyers - or they may be from within the political system - ex-politicians, functionaries, policy wonks, etc. As usual, each state has its own rules for picking these electors. 

In fact, each political party within each state has its own rules for picking electors - there are different sets of electors on call for each party within each state - and which party's set of electors is sent to the Electoral College in December for a particular state depends on which party wins the popular vote within that state (although - of course - some states are different: in Maine and Nebraska, that decision is based on a mix of the results by congressional district and the statewide popular vote - don't ask why, it just is). 

So, the whole state's vote in the Electoral College goes to one. For example, even if Pennsylvania, say, votes in more Democrat Representatives than Republicans, and even if the Governor it votes in is a Democrat, all 20 of its Electoral College votes will still go towards the Republican presidential candidate if 51% of the state votes for him/her.

And this is where another major problem of the US electoral system lies. Each state gets a certain number of seats in the House of Representatives, based roughly on their relative populations, which is as it should be in a representative democracy (except that gerrymandering is a whole other problem, as I have described before, as is the fact that Washington DC, which is not technically a state, is given a random three seats, while other non-states like Puerto Rico and.Guam are not). 

But then, for the presidential vote, each state gets that many votes in the Electoral College PLUS 2! So, small rural states with tiny populations like Wyoming (pop. 579,000) and North Dakota (pop. 762,000), get an automatic one Electoral College vote plus two more. This gives small rural states (which, as it happens, tend to be Republican strongholds) a disproportionate amount of power in the Electoral College, while devaluing the votes of big cities (and the more racialized population that tends to live in them).

But here's something else about the Electoral College system that I found out just this year. The electors in the Electoral College typically vote for the presidential candidate of the party that wins that state's vote. But they don't have to! The system technically allows for some "unpledged electors" that can vote whichever way they personally choose, although in practice, at least since the Republican abuse of that allowance during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, all electors are now pledged to vote for a particular presidential candidate. 

However, even the regular pledged electors can, if they so decide, break their promise and vote against the state mandate (known, reasonably enough, as "faithless electors"), which is kind of ridiculous. There was a high number of faithless electors - seven - in the last presidential election, you know, the one where that Trump guy got in against all the odds and by the slimmest of margins. These actions didn't actually change the final result, as it happens, but you can see that it might in a very close election. And there sems to be very little scrutiny of, or attention paid to, these electors.

It's just one more bizarre element in a pretty bizarre and indefensible system. The system was arrived at back in the 18th century, through a combination of the bare self-interest of certain states, the racism of slave-owning states, the practical logistics of a pre-industrial country where information travelled slowly, and a worry that elected congressmen would be too corruptible and too easily manipulated by political parties to be reliable electors of a president. Well, look at what a feckless bunch of lawmakers we have ended up with anyway!

The system is clearly in dire need of reform. A plurality of the American people would happily see it changed (around the level of 65%), and that applies particularly on the Democrat side of the divide. Such a constitutional amendment would require the votes of two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-quarters of the individual states, a huge ask in these polarized, dysfunctional times. And don't expect any party that has just won under that system to change it! One Donald Trump used to favour abandoning the Electoral College - until he got elected, when his views completely changed!

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