Americans often feel they have one of the strongest functioning democracies in the world. While our country certainly is better off than most, this blind patriotism ignores serious structural flaws in our nation’s voting system.
The Electoral College has always had plenty of outspoken critics, and the final months of 2016 were a particularly bountiful time for think pieces calling for its abolition (you can probably imagine why). Plenty of people have covered this ground already, but it’s worth revisiting the many ways in which the Electoral College fails us as voters, the largest of which is its inability to consistently align with the popular vote. In a true democracy, where each person’s vote contributes equally to the outcome of an election, the candidate who wins more votes than any of their competitors should always be the victor, yet this is not always the case. All but two of the states employ a winner-take-all approach to electoral votes, which means that the candidate who receives the majority of votes in that state will receive all of the state’s electoral votes, as opposed to splitting them proportionally between candidates. As a result, it is possible to earn enough support to win the 270 electoral votes needed to be elected president without actually winning the popular vote. In an extreme situation, a candidate could earn the electoral votes in 11 of the most populous states and win the election without earning a single vote in any other state. Admittedly, this exact situation is highly unlikely, but there have been multiple actual elections—including the most recent presidential one—in which the winning candidate lost the popular vote. This outcome is both illogical and undemocratic, and there is no reason to tolerate a system that has repeatedly produced such results.
Another failure of the Electoral College is its inability to accommodate third parties. Despite the fact that an increasing numbers of citizens no longer strongly identify with either major political party, the two-party system still maintains a chokehold on American politics, largely thanks to the Electoral College. Because candidates must win the majority of votes in a state to earn electoral votes from that state, it would take an extreme shift in popular support for any third party candidate to win a state’s electoral votes. Third parties may lack support from an absolute majority of citizens, but they still have enough support to warrant political representation, and the current system of electoral votes blocks them from obtaining this support. As a result, voters are discouraged from voting for third-party candidates who are virtually guaranteed to lose, while third-party candidates themselves are discouraged from running at all, since they cannot realistically hope to win any votes at all in the Electoral College. Replacing the Electoral College with a popular vote system would encourage more third-party candidates to run and encourage more people to vote for the candidate that best aligns with their particular views, allowing for a fairer and more complete representation of the spectrum of political beliefs in America.
If all of this weren’t enough, the Electoral College also promotes unfair elections by giving disproportionate influence to smaller states. Electoral votes are not awarded to states based on population, but rather based on combined representation in the House (which itself is not perfectly proportional to population) and the Senate. The result is a system that disadvantages residents of populous states. Although these states may have a larger absolute number of electoral votes than their less populous counterparts, they have a lower ratio of electors-to-citizens. For instance, Wyoming (the state with the smallest population) has approximately 195 thousand citizens for each elector, while California (the state with the largest population) has 712 thousand citizens for each elector. Since each elector gets to cast exactly one vote for president, the vote of a Wyoming citizen is quite literally worth more than the vote of someone in California (3.6 times more, to be precise). And on average, individual votes in the country’s 10 least populous states are 2.5 times more powerful than those in the 10 most populous states. Though small states are insistent on the importance of equal representation in the Senate, there is no reason for this principle to bleed into the presidential election, where it results in unequal representation for individuals and thus violates core democratic ideals.
The Electoral College is just one way in which citizens’ votes are bizarrely manipulated. Gerrymandering, the practice of strategically drawing the boundaries of electoral districts to advantage a specific party, is a widespread and well-established practice for Democratic and Republican leaders alike. Gerrymandering often involves one of two main strategies: packing and cracking. Political leaders can pack all the members of a particular group or party into a single district, giving them disproportionate influence in that district while limiting their power in neighboring districts. Take, for instance, the Fourth Congressional District of Illinois, which neatly squeezes two non-adjacent Hispanic neighborhoods into the same district by connecting them with a narrow strip of land (this land is occupied not by actual residents, but by Interstate 294). Alternatively, the party in charge of redistricting might try to crack apart members of the opposing party, spreading them across multiple districts so they cannot win the majority in any one of them. An example of this can be found in Ohio’s Franklin County, where the (largely liberal) residents of Columbus are spread between three different districts in which they are outnumbered by residents of the more conservative suburbs.
Gerrymandering would not be so frequent were it not an effective strategy for winning elections, and in fact election results from the past few years clearly demonstrate how powerful gerrymandering can be. In Wisconsin in 2012, Republican legislative candidates for the State Assembly received 48.6 percent of the vote but won 60 percent of the seats, and in Maryland in 2014, Democratic congressional candidates received 57 percent of the vote but won 88 percent of the state’s congressional seats. Unlike many of the problems facing our democracy, gerrymandering has a fairly straightforward solution (albeit one unlikely to be embraced by elected politicians): make redistricting the responsibility of an independent institution rather than the party in charge. Until that happens, politicians will continue to choose their voters, rather than voters choosing their politicians.
Before disproportionate electoral representation or poorly drawn districts can distort the influence of an individual’s vote, that individual must be able to vote in the first place, and thousands of Americans who should be eligible to vote are being disenfranchised. Currently, thirty-four states have some form of voter identification requirements, while seven states have strict ID laws requiring voters to present government-issued photo identification. These ID requirements sound innocuous, but studies have shown that they disproportionately affect minority, low-income, and elderly citizens, all of who are much more likely to not have government-issued photo ID. Proponents of strict voter ID laws are constantly making claims about the need to combat voter fraud in order to keep elections fair. Voter fraud is certainly an alarming prospect, but while there are plenty of ways to illegally cast a vote—such as stuffing a ballot box, voting at multiple polling booths, or buying votes—voter ID laws only defend against one very specific thing: a voter who shows up at a polling booth pretending to be someone they are not. This behavior is virtually nonexistent, and has certainly never occurred at a large enough scale to alter the results of an election. One investigation by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt—which included general, primary, municipal, and special elections—found only 31 instances of this type of fraud from 2000 to 2014. That’s 31 false ballots out of well over a billion. Additionally, many reported instances of voter fraud ultimately turn out to be clerical errors, and one analysis of several elections found the highest rate of voter fraud in any of them to be 0.0025 percent. Compared to the number of Americans who lack government-issued photo ID (11 percent), these rates are negligible, and don’t require such unduly harsh voter ID requirements to combat them.
All the evidence points to a system that disenfranchises voters and misrepresents millions of people. For a nation that insists on “spreading democracy” and being “leaders of the free world,” we need to correct our own flaws first before trying to fix others’.
Tara Joy is a member of the class of 2020. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.