The Unpopular Vote

By Ravenne Reid on March 16, 2017

As a political science major living in a predominantly liberal city, it is not a rare occurrence for me to hear students or, at times, professors share their irritation with the current president. Granted, we are the ones on campus who should be the most invested in politics, so our grievances with the current administration are not only accepted but also expected.

With that being said, even though I identify as a Democrat, I am well aware that Trump supporters have legitimate reasons for the opinions they hold. Perhaps they were long-time Republicans and wanted leaders who were willing to maintain traditionalist values. That thought is often overlooked in my classes, and more often than not, they are subdued by a repeated phrase: “Technically, he did not win.” Even after all this time, they still have misgivings, not about the president’s victory, but about the Electoral College.

Back in 1787, the Founding Fathers assembled a committee of delegates at the Constitutional Convention to formulate a feasible method of selecting a president. The first idea was to have Congress make the decision, but it was later rejected as a preventive measure against possible corruption and friction between the political parties. The second called for the state legislatures to decide, but that was overruled out of fears that the president would be indebted to their authority and, thus, undermine his own.

The third suggestion was simple: the president should be elected directly by the popular vote. This proposal was also vetoed on account of the distrust that the Framers had with the general public. They thought that, without access to the necessary information that one would need to elect the leader of the free world, public opinion and, therefore, votes were not reliable. So, the fourth and final idea encouraged an indirect election, in which the most educated individuals from each state would establish a College of Electors to select the president.

Even President Trump would agree that “the Electoral College is actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play” (2016). Yet, Trump’s support of this voting system was not always existent; in fact, when the former businessman mistakenly thought that President Obama had won the electoral vote, instead of the popular vote, via Twitter, he wrote: “The Electoral College is a disaster for a democracy” (2012).

Unbeknownst to him at the time, the process would eventually work in his favor, but Trump was adamant in his proclamation that the system was unjust. Even though the President did not support his 2012 statement with any further explanation — as he did in his 2016 tweet — there are viable arguments that could be made in opposition to the proponents of this election process.

First and foremost, the Electoral College would be modified, rather than eliminated, by the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). As a result, not only would the Compact dismiss the requirement of a constitutional amendment, but the Twelfth Amendment would also remain intact.

According to Amy Sherman, “[NPVIC] is an agreement among several [states] to award all their respective electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote. Once [the appropriate amount of states] totaling 270 electoral votes join the Compact — which only requires passing state laws — then the next presidential election will be determined by the popular vote, not the Electoral College.”

Advocates who worry that the slightest change to our voting system would break away from tradition should consider two facts: the Electoral College would evolve, so to speak, to adapt to changing times, and some states have already jumped on this bandwagon.

Sherman continues, “Ten states and the District of Columbia — which add up to 165 electoral votes — have passed laws to join the Compact. So, 105 more electoral votes are needed before it can go into effect.”

Although the current members, such as New York, California, and Hawaii, are Democratic states, it is not virtually impossible for Republican regions to follow suit. But, perhaps, the resistance that Republicans have may stem from the fact that the Electoral College has always worked in their favor.

The years 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and now 2016 have seen presidential candidates lose the popular vote, but win the electoral vote – each time a Republican. So, as stated in the second argument, the Electoral College does inherently choose the candidate who is best fit to serve, yet, as luck would have it, that person always seems to embody this particular Party. A brief look into our nation’s history reveals scenarios in which the Democratic candidate earned more than his fair share of the public’s approval, but lost due to the Electoral College.

In 1824, Andrew Jackson won 15 more electoral votes and 38,000 more popular votes than his contender, John Quincy Adams. Although Jackson had a considerable lead in both categories, he was still 32 electoral votes short of victory; consequently, the House of Representatives chose Adams to be the next president. To fast forward to 1876 and 1888, Rutherford B. Hayes won the election by one electoral vote, whereas Benjamin Harrison secured his position after losing more than 90,000 popular votes. In these instances, the “best fit” president was deemed to be the person whom the majority of the population disapproved of or, generally speaking, rejected as being the most suitable candidate; the latter two election years prove this notion.

In 2000, during one of the most memorable elections, Al Gore received over 540,000 more popular votes than George W. Bush but lost by five electoral votes. However, Bush’s win was not that simple due to the recount in Florida, and it was not well-deserved to some. Justifying its title as a battleground state, Florida had over 9,000 ballots that “were not perforated all the way through, [making it] unclear who the person voted for.”

In the case of Bush v. Gore (2000), in which the U.S. Supreme Court took matters into its own hands, the manual recount that Gore ordered was reversed in a ruling that stated “Florida may not … value one person’s vote over that of another.” As unorthodox as that election may have been, Gore still won the popular vote at a measure that was unheard of until the 2016 election.

Hillary Clinton has 2.9 million more popular votes than the current president, Donald Trump. Even though Trump is technically the winner, thanks to absentee and provisional ballots, Clinton’s lead has been regarded as “unprecedented in the modern history of American presidential politics and, [the numbers] focus attention on the democratic dysfunction that has been exposed.”

The dysfunction derives from a democracy that does not take the people into consideration in spite of claims that commend the Electoral College for giving a voice to those who are often silenced.

Representation is the primary objective of the Electoral College, in which the individual votes by this process attempt to ensure a fair election. The College may have been a fair process when it was introduced in the late eighteenth century. Bear in mind the progress that the United States has undergone since that time, representation-wise. From annexation of new states and the suffrage of minorities to increasing populations, the Electoral College, unfortunately, was unable to keep abreast of the changing times.

In fact, according to Lawrence O’Donnell, “Votes in the Electoral College are not democratically distributed throughout the country. Wyoming and South Dakota only get three electoral votes, which is the least that any state can have. But, while Wyoming only has 586,000 people, South Dakota has 858,000 — that is, 300,000 more people — so, these voters are not as fairly represented as they should be.”

One could argue that perhaps there is a particular range of people equal to the number of electoral votes given; for instance, states with populations below one million will receive no more than three electors.

Unfortunately, this is not the case as determined by one of the largest states in the nation: California. O’Donnell continues to say that this state “has 39 million people, and it only gets 55 electors. If California voters got equal representation in the Electoral College to Wyoming voters, California would get 199 electors. That is how wildly unrepresentative of actual American voters that the Electoral College is.”

So, proponents of the Electoral College may be staunch advocates for equal representation, but the way in which this system works contradicts that very notion. In addition to that, their promotion of candidates who defy their means to protect minorities by using a tactic that disregards them — otherwise known as the Southern Strategy – is also detrimental to equal representation. This Strategy was introduced by former President Richard Nixon in 1968, which prompted Republican efforts to appeal to white Southerners.

According to Ken Mehlman, the former Republican National Committee Chairman, “[As] the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African-American community, Republicans … gave up on winning that vote by looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization.”

If the Strategy were simply a byproduct of Republicans’ ineffective outreach to black Americans, then, more than likely, the result would not have been as successful. Because the tactic instigated fear and ethnocentric values among white Americans, in the end, the Strategy was successful in getting President Nixon into the White House.

In light of recent events, the Strategy was also present in President Trump’s victory. A YouGov poll revealed that more than 20 percent of Trump supporters in South Carolina — a solid state for Republicans — believe that “slaves should not have been freed after the Civil War … [and that] white people represented the superior race.”

What Trump did was continue a tactic that was not uncommon for members of his political party. So, when those in favor of the Electoral College insinuate that, without the process, candidates will put all of their efforts into acquiring the white vote, the argument here is that it happens anyway. And, with each passing election year, Republican candidates will continue to set their base solely in the majority vote while these proponents continue to deny that such a strategy exists.

What was once considered a respected system of voting now causes turmoil within the political arena. Within this arena, advocates and challengers of this system possess contrasting opinions about what the meaning of a democracy is. While proponents of the Electoral College may argue that continuing an election process that inspired our system of government is, in fact, embracing democracy, opponents are confident in the fact that this age-old system neither represents true democratic values nor the majority of American constituents.

For some staunch adversaries, the only way to ameliorate the tension that this process has caused is to eliminate it altogether. By doing so, there is a possibility that voters will no longer show their indifference to voting, but rather take part in a system that was designed to ensure that their voices are heard.

Regardless of tradition, these issues matter and the fate of our democracy rests on those who are willing to address them. Until then, the unpopular vote will continue to cast a shadow over the popular one and, thus, reinforce doubts that the American people already have with our democracy.

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