Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Electoral College

I'm going to take a break from staring at this live update of the Iowa caucus to talk about how stupid the Electoral College is.

Yes, the Electoral College has nothing to do with caucuses and primaries, but it's going to come into play pretty heavily in about nine months. But, really, this is just something that's been on a mind for a while now, and it's time to vent.

In case you're unfamiliar with the Electoral College, here's a quick rundown:

Unlike every single other elected office in this country, the offices of the president and vice president are not elected by popular vote. Instead, each state is allocated a number of "electors" equal to the number of representatives and senators the state has. So, for instance, Louisiana has six congressional representatives and two senators, so Louisiana gets a total of eight electors.

When Election Day comes and you go to vote for you next president, you're not actually electing a president. Instead, you're electing an elector you've never met or heard of to possibly cast their ballot for the candidate you choose. So, instead of the president being chosen by the 322 million people in the country, they're instead elected by 538 people nobody has ever heard of.

But hey, that's not a big deal. I mean, our national laws are passed by 535 people most of us have never heard of, so it's not a big deal, right? It's basically just electing a Congress whose sole job is to elect a president and vice president.

Except, it isn't, due in part to the "winner-takes-all" system most states have in place. With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, whoever wins the popular vote in a state gets all of that state's delegates.

For instance, let's say most of California's considerable population goes out to vote: 25 million of the state's 39 million people. Let's also say that the race is pretty tight (not unlikely, as most of the state's liberals are clumped together in a few coastal cities while the rest of the state is predominantly conservative). If 12,499, 800 people vote Republican and 12,500,200 people vote Democrat, the Democrats get all 44 of California's electoral votes, even though half the state voted for the other guy.

This is a big problem to me. The founding fathers were pretty smart, and maybe this system made sense once upon a time, but nowadays voter turnout is pretty low. In presidential elections, voter turnout hovers around 50-55% of eligible voters, which is really good compared to midterm elections (~37% in 2014), yet still our country's leaders are being determined by, at best, half of our country's population. In 2008, President Barack Obama won the presidency with 69.5 million votes. There were 235 million eligible voters in that election, and Barack Obama won by convincing less than 30% of them to vote for him.

Low voter turnout isn't a new issue, and there are many factors that influence this country's low public engagement in politics. Abolishing the electoral college certainly wouldn't fix that problem on its own, but I think it would be a step toward improving voter turnout in presidential elections, at least.

I've lived in two states so far: Louisiana and Arizona, both of which are predominantly red states. What kind of incentive do you have, as a liberal, to vote for a president in your state when you know full well that the conservatives are going to win the popular vote in your state, effectively making your vote null and void? What if you're one of the many conservative upstate New Yorkers, knowing full well that your vote won't count for much against the overwhelming number of liberals living the the city?

Out of 57 presidential elections, the popular vote and the Electoral College vote have disagreed on the winner only a few times, and only once in recent memory: in 2000, when Al Gore beat George W. Bush in the popular vote by 500,000 votes, yet Bush beat Gore in the Electoral College by 5 votes. Besides that instance and a couple of odd elections in the 1800s, though, the electoral vote has been a pretty good representation of the popular vote.

However, I can't help but wonder if that would continue to be the case if voters in states known to be "red" or "blue" didn't feel so disenfranchised.

There are lots of other reasons to dislike the Electoral College: it forces candidates to focus on swing states, it gives no power whatsoever to non-state U.S. territories other than DC, it's needlessly complex, it's extremely biased against third parties, and so on. At the moment, though, I'm mostly focused on the voter turnout thing, especially since it's a personal frustration as a liberal who has only lived in conservative states.

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