A question I am asked when traveling internationally is how it is possible (or fair) for a candidate to be elected president of the United States when they don’t receive a majority of the votes?
Trying to answer those queries by explaining the Electoral College mostly produces head shaking. Keep in mind this system originated well over 200 years ago, and that there wasn’t then, nor is there now, a Constitutional guarantee of the right to vote.
The qualifications for voting in presidential, House and Senate elections are delegated to each state. It has only been through Constitutional amendments that we have added certain protections to regulate voting within the states. Those hard-won protections require “equal protection,” elimination of poll taxes and that voting cannot be restricted based on race, sex and age for those over 18.
When the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1787, the people who were allowed to vote in America were white men, 21 years or older, who owned land. People of color, including Native Americans, and women had no such rights. They were not considered equals by the founders of our nation who did not believe in popular democracy when the U.S. was created (many drafters of the Constitution were slaveholders).
Wyoming was the first state to give women the right to vote in 1869. It was another 50 years before it became a national right.
Western states exemplify individualism, and women certainly played their part in “taming” the frontier. Wyoming apparently also gave women the franchise early on to attract more females to the state. Hey, whatever works if it creates equality.
The elimination of most racial barriers came in 1870 when the 15th Amendment was adopted after the Civil War, but it wasn’t until adoption of The Indian Citizenship Act in 1924 that Native Americans were finally granted voting rights. It still took many years for people of color to obtain the right to effectively vote due to intentionally placed barriers (like poll taxes), and the partisan battle to restrict voter rights through other means continues to this day.
President Donald Trump has been advocating for voting restrictions that would hinder the rights of the poor and minorities to vote. Not being his base, Trump wants barriers to these groups voting in 2020 because he was narrowly elected through an archaic institution that should be abolished.
Our current president came to power through an Electoral College fiat. He was adamantly opposed to this system in 2012 when he thought Barack Obama might win without a majority of the vote. Yet Trump managed to win the presidency while being 3 million votes short of a majority. However, prior to his election he said, “The Electoral College is a disaster for democracy ... a total sham and a travesty.” On this occasion, he spoke the truth.
On April 26, 2016, candidate Trump told Fox & Friends that he “would rather have a popular election” for president. He now heartily endorses the Electoral College — a flip-flop of grand proportion that is not surprising given his opportunistic nature.
The U.S. Constitution was not created by a group of people intent on protecting the rights and liberties of all humans. The drafters were a group of white guys who held land. They wanted to perpetuate a system in which their kind would flourish. It worked, but to paraphrase a bad cigarette ad, we’ve come a long ways since then baby.
The United States has become a complex mix of people from all over the world, and the vast majority of Americans support popular democracy. Fundamental fairness demands that every citizen’s vote should count when electing a president whose job is to serve all Americans.
There are many reasons advanced for maintaining the Electoral College, but none of them withstand intellectual analysis. For more in-depth discussion of these issues, peruse the article “Here’s every defense of the Electoral College — and why they’re all wrong,” which appeared in the New York Intelligencer on March 20, 2019.
Cutting through the intellectual posturing, there is only one reason advocates want to maintain the Electoral College. The GOP currently perceives it as beneficial because it has allowed their party to retain power in several instances over the will of the majority. It is easy to understand that appeal, but when it comes to running the nation the minority view should not prevail over the majority.
Whether to keep or scrap the Electoral College also should not be a matter of political party preference given there were no political parties in existence when the Constitution was written. Why should either political party have the power to nullify your vote for president?
See also the article “Myths aside, the GOP can win a presidential popular vote” written by Myra Adams on Aug. 30, 2019, for Real Clear Politics. This column notes the changing electorate may soon create a bullet-proof Electoral College shift for the Democrats where Republicans only chance of winning future presidential elections would be by popular vote.
Regardless of your party affiliation (including independent voters), every citizen in the United States should have their vote count when it comes to electing the president. As it stands, if you live in a strongly blue or red state, there’s a good chance, depending on how your state’s electoral votes are dispensed, that your vote has no meaning.
I have voted in Idaho knowing my vote meant nothing when it came to the presidency. That’s disheartening, and I have heard others advance that futility as a reason for why they chose not to vote in elections. Disenfranchisement would no longer happen anywhere in the U.S. if the electoral college were abolished.
My recent columns have advocated for progressive amendments to impose term limits and restrict dark money. The Constitution should also be modified to scrap the Electoral College. Having the doctrine “one person one vote” apply to our presidential elections is fair and would increase participation in American democracy. There’s nothing archaic about that.
Jesse Robison is a Pocatello native who has lived in Mexico and other places. He was educated at Idaho State University and University of Idaho. Robison works as a mediator and insurance law consultant, but his passion is public art. He has spearheaded numerous art improvements throughout Pocatello, including the Japanese garden located at Pocatello Regional Airport, and he serves on the Bistline Foundation. Robison currently resides in Pocatello.