Wavelength: Should America abolish the electoral college?

Author: Eileen Mostyn

 Wavelength: Should America abolish the electoral college?

America prides itself on being a democratic society where all people are given an equal voice. However, this view of American democracy is an uncomplicated version of a complicated reality. There have been five elections in American history, two of which were in the last twenty years, where the president was elected despite losing the popular vote. It would make sense that in a democracy, the candidate that the majority of Americans want to become president would win the election, but that is not the case because of the electoral college.

Our country places a great deal of emphasis on the autonomy of states, and in defense of the electoral college, people will point to maps of the 2016 vote distribution, showing that Clinton’s votes were concentrated in a much smaller area than Trump’s. A proponent of the electoral college would see this red map with a few blue spots concentrated on the coasts would ask, “How can you look at this map and say that Clinton should have won? So many more counties voted for Trump.” The problem with this view, however, is that our leaders are elected to represent people, not geographical units.

I understand that different states have different interests. A voter in rural Iowa would be more concerned with policies affecting agriculture, while a voter in western Pennsylvania would care more about manufacturing jobs, and a voter in California might want to elect someone who would protect their interests in the tech industry. Electoral college defenders would point to this fact and insist that the electoral college is necessary to make sure that the farmer in Iowa isn’t overruled by the computer programmer in California. However, this defense is flawed, because the electoral college doesn’t put the voters in less populous states on an equal playing field with voters in more populous states, it weights their votes more heavily. It is important that we listen to the concerns of all Americans. The only way for each American to have an equal voice is to move to a popular vote electoral system, or at the very least, to reform the electoral college to allocate electors proportionally, rather than with a winner-take-all system.

Additionally, the electoral college diminishes the voice of people even within those less populous states. If North Dakota is a reliably Republican state, what incentive does a Democratic voter have to vote for president? If Delaware’s electors will always go to the Democratic candidate, why would a Republican voter there want to vote? Is the electoral college amplifying these voices in less populous states, or is it silencing the minority? 

The electoral college does not provide equality, and it certainly does not make America more democratic. A Pew Research survey from this summer found that only 20% of Americans trust the government to do the right thing always or most of the time. And why should they trust the government, if the leader of the government is not the person the majority of Americans chose? We are not going to restore trust in our government by leaving a system in place which places more emphasis on land area than population size and which silences the minority in states from California to Louisiana and New York to Utah. An important first step in creating a government which people can trust is to create a system where the head of state is actually chosen by the people. The only way to do this is to abolish the electoral college.