Swinging away from the U.S. voter

In the presidential elections, states matter more than individual citizens. The national vote is fragmented by the archaic electoral college system that is fundamentally elitist (Published in The Hindu, 1 November 2012)

The U.S. Declaration of Independence may claim that “all men are created equal,” but the country’s voters certainly aren’t. In American presidential elections, states matter, not individual citizens. The archaic electoral college system splinters the national vote into 51 separate elections (the states plus the capital, the District of Columbia). A victory in each of these polls wins the candidate a certain number of “electors,” an invisible species of political being who seem to exist merely as points on the television graphs that will besiege the American public on November 6. This manner of electing the president can produce situations, like George W. Bush’s victory in 2000, in which the loser actually wins the popular vote; Bush did not have a popular mandate, only the dubious blessing of a majority of the country’s faceless electors. The great absurdity of the system is not simply that it disregards the will of the people, but that it cheapens the very act of voting.

As early as May of last year, pundits were confidently isolating the seven or eight “swing states” closely split between Republican and Democrat-leaning voters that would determine the 2012 vote. Predictably, it is mostly in these states — the likes of Colorado, Florida, and most importantly Ohio — that the election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is being contested. While the candidates lavish their treasure on a handful of swing states, political tumbleweed blows through much of the rest of the country.

The candidates don’t bother wooing voters in “safe” states. Here, in New York, the election is a fait accompli. New York — along with several other dense, coastal states — has long been destined to vote for Obama. Some of the country’s most populous areas, including its biggest cities, are therefore entirely overlooked by the campaign (in 2008, 98 per cent of campaign funds were spent on just 15 states). The “undecided” Midwestern voter looms large in the American imagination, while the denizens of its cities — its centres of change and innovation — recede into the background.

The system discourages electoral participation in places where one candidate expects to enjoy a healthy margin of victory. It reduces the presidential campaign to a series of cynical calculations. The votes of people in states leaning strongly in either direction weigh far less than those of voters in swing states still “in play,” so the former can be safely ignored.


Why should the votes of a few count more than the votes of others? Like much else in the politics of this country — such as the sanctity of firearms — the logic of the electoral college system lies in the early years of the American republic. Politicians and thinkers of the time briefly considered the popular vote as a means to elect the president, but eventually dismissed it. They feared that without proper national parties already in place and with a largely agrarian electorate, the popular vote would only encourage crude regionalism; voters would rally around familiar candidates, a habit that would inevitably favour the bigger, more populous states at the expense of the smaller ones.

The spectre of regionalism no longer looms over the nation. Both the Democrats and the Republicans, two incredibly developed — perhaps overdeveloped — national parties, are established in every state. Americans themselves are far more mobile than their late 18th century predecessors. This continent of a country is now bridged by highways of asphalt and broadband.

More than anachronistic, the electoral college system is fundamentally elitist. The “founding fathers” did not trust the general public. To curtail the full power of a popular vote, they instituted the intermediary screen of “electors.” Writing in the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton defended the rationale for the system by arguing that the electors “will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary and violent movements.” From its advent, the electoral college system was conceived to keep the people at bay. A popular vote, in the view of the Framers, would only open the door to tyranny and mob rule.


Contemporary defenders of the electoral college tend to be right-wing. They may not use the same language, but they too fear the implications of a popular vote. Were a system of popular vote in place, candidates would be forced to spend more time in densely-populated areas, particularly in multicultural cities like those on the coasts.

If you listen to much of the rhetoric of these presidential campaigns, America can appear as a land of cornfields, church steeples, and sleepy small towns. It is not. A popular vote would encourage a more inclusive politics, and not just pander to the parochial interests of a few states. The concerns of the urban poor, of immigrant communities, and other oft-neglected constituencies would have to be better addressed by candidates of both parties. The tone of American political discourse would shift ever so slightly to the left.

Introducing the popular vote in the U.S. presidential elections is not at all an outlandish possibility. Already, nine states have passed a law that would force electoral votes in each state to be delivered to the winner of the overall popular vote and not to the winner of the state election. Several more states must pass the law before it crosses the threshold of operability, but it has already stirred the ire of the right wing. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell bloodily urged his comrades to fight its progress: “We need to kill it in the cradle before it grows up.” If not strangled in its infancy, the popular vote movement promises a more democratic future for a republic stubbornly set in its idiosyncratic ways.

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