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America’s Democracy Problem

We’re often told, mainly by American politicians, that America is the greatest democracy in the world. It’s very easy to see why they think that. Aside from their narcissism, the US is, in fact, a fantastic county. The individual rights afforded to its citizens are second to none, and the American people have been great supporters of democracy the world over for two hundred years.

However, great as America is, they aren’t the greatest democracy in the world. Far from it in fact. The main problem stems from what is called the Electoral College.  

Dreamt up by the Founding Fathers and established under the US Constitution, the Electoral College is the method by which the president of the United States is elected. Instead of opting for a simple, effective and democratic popular vote, the Founding Fathers decided to complicate the whole ordeal. Revolutionary leader turned Broadway star Alexander Hamilton was a keen supporter of the Electoral College. He wrote about his distrust of leaving such an important decision to ordinary citizens. His rationale behind it was the threat of a tyrannical leader who Hamilton believed could trick citizens into voting them president. So, as an antidote to that threat, he and his fellow Founding Fathers proposed a system where citizens would vote for their candidate in each state and then a chosen few, known as Electors, would vote on behalf of that state, thus electing the president.

This results in the Electoral College breaking a fundamental rule of democracy.  Under a fair democracy everyone’s vote should count equally, however, the Electoral College violates this fundamental principle by making some people’s votes are more equal than others. This may sound implausible, but let me explain. If the Electoral Votes were to be spread evenly across the country, every 574,000 people would be represented by one Electoral Vote. However, as I outlined earlier, the Electoral College doesn’t give votes to people; it gives votes to states. This can have some undemocratic consequences. According to the rules of the Electoral College, each state receives a minimum of three Electoral Votes, the remainder of which are distributed according to population. This leads to a situation where states who should only get one or two Electoral Votes end up with three of four. This creates an imbalance where one Vermonters vote for President is worth the same as three Texans, or one Wyomingites vote is worth four Californians. There we have it: proof that under the Electoral College the worth of your vote depends on where you live and that it is inherently undemocratic.

At this point in the article, some of you may be angrily tweeting that I’m missing the entire point of the Electoral College. That, in fact, it protects the small states from the big states by giving them more voting power, requiring presidential candidates to pay more attention to them. I would request that you pause for a second, because if that is the purpose of the Electoral College, it’s failing spectacularly.

In the 2016 Presidential Election, over 90% of the campaign activity took place in just eleven states. Nearly 60% of that took place in just four major swing states; Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio, all of whom are in the top ten most populous states. The data is clear. The Electoral College doesn’t make presidential candidates any more likely to visit the smaller states, and giving them more voting power hasn’t had the desired effect.

Following this, the supporters of the Electoral College try to claim that switching to a popular vote system would mean that presidents would be decided by the major urban areas and given the fact that many of these areas are Democrat strongholds, the Republicans would never win a Presidency again. For this argument to hold true, you have to throw basic mathematics completely out the window. New York City is by far the largest city with eight million inhabitants. However, the population of cities drops drastically after that. The population of the top hundred cities in America only adds up to just under twenty percent of the total population. Far from the majority required. Thus, the idea that a candidate can simply focus on large metropolitan areas while ignoring everyone else is mathematically ludicrous, and ignorant of the population distribution.

It also ignores the fact that Republicans do in fact exist in large cities. President Trump received nearly three million votes in New York State in 2016. He also won over four million in California. Clinton received more, although not by the margin that some would have you believe. Switching to a popular vote would give these seven million Americans a voice and an influential vote in the presidential election.  The same is true for the 33% of Nebraskans who voted for Hillary Clinton. The Electoral College winner-takes-all system leaves many voters without a genuine chance of influencing the election. Simply put, the system needs to change. If you are somehow still not convinced, I’ll leave you with this.

It is mathematically possible, although unlikely, to win the Electoral College with just twenty-two percent of the popular vote. That’s right, 22%. While the Electoral College has not failed as spectacularly as that before, it has failed in the past. On four occasions the Electoral College has allowed the loser of the election to win the election, with the most recent being in 2016. This leaves the Electoral College with a failure rate of 7%. Who would play a game in which, by some quirk in the rules, the winner loses? I know I certainly wouldn’t. In the end we are left in a situation whereby the majority of the population are largely ignored and a system where the loser ends up as president. This is not democracy. This is indefensible.