Why the US Electoral College system is problematic
In a little under two months, the US will once again put to the test an archaic electoral anomaly that has failed its democracy five times in its history and twice so far this century: The Electoral College.
When Al Gore and George W. Bush competed for the presidency in 2000, Gore won the popular vote. However, the Electoral College votes allocated to each candidate were so evenly distributed that only the state of Florida was left to try to decide the victor from the vanquished. In modern times, this was probably the first occasion that global onlookers became aware of the realities and foibles of the US Electoral College system.
More recently, in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory was multiples bigger than Gore’s majority, but she failed to win the 270 Electoral College seats required to win the presidency.
In all cases of popular vote defeats, the vanquished candidate owes their downfall to the Founding Fathers of the US, who developed an Electoral College scheme that was based on a mistrust of the electorate.
The root of the problem goes all the way back to the post-revolutionary war years, when George Washington and the Founding Fathers had been victorious over their British colonial masters and formed the republic. Of course, the intent behind forming a democracy where the people and not a political body got to choose the president was idealistic and attractive. However, Washington and his intelligentsia were then faced with some major constitutional, race and class dilemmas.
The presidential election process was driven by the desire to avoid having a political body (i.e., Congress) elect the country’s leader — this would have amounted to a duplication of the way the British selected their prime minister. The selection was therefore left to the people (except it wasn’t) and by a declaration that all men are created equal (except at that time they weren’t).
The problem for the Founding Fathers was that they simply could not trust the people of the original 13 states of America to elect the right president, i.e., one of them. Hence, the ingenious idea of the Electoral College was devised, whereby, according to population, each state would be allocated a specified number of seats occupied by educated men, who could decide if the state in which they sat had voted for the “right” man. They would then allocate their votes accordingly on behalf of their state. This scheme clearly worked to design because the first four presidents of the US were all Founding Fathers.
It is arguable that, given the circumstances of the time, the Electoral College represented a justifiable check and balance within the presidential electoral system. There was, after all, no electronic communication, little chance of the average voter having ever seen or heard the choice of presidential candidates in person, many could not read or write, and the voters’ access to education was limited to the upper classes.
Whichever way the Electoral College votes, the upcoming US electoral process and its fallout are going to be riveting to watch.
Today, the number of Electoral College seats is still ostensibly tied to the population within each state. However, the allocation of the individual to those seats is now either a pledged Republican or Democrat depending on the voting result within their particular state. Come this Nov. 3, a voting average of 54.7 percent of eligible Americans will go to the polls, with most thinking that their vote will count to either retaining or replacing their president; however, in many cases, it will not.
Due to the Electoral College system, any result greater than 50 percent of the popular vote in any single state commits all of the Electoral College seats in that state to the party of the favored candidate. Hence, any vote that is made in excess of 50 percent in one of these “certain” states is, in effect, wasted. This is the reason why the popular choice for America’s president can lose the election.
This impending election sees 42 of the 50 states forecast as either firmly Republican or Democrat. It therefore falls on the voting population of eight “swing states” to decide the overall outcome. In these states, the voters are considered evenly split between the parties and, based on recent voter turnout, they represent just 13 percent of America’s population with power over 25 percent (138) of the total (538) Electoral College seats.
Unless there are any surprises in the “certain” states, then current forecasts see Joe Biden needing 48 seats from the swing states in order to win the presidency. Donald Trump needs to win more: He needs a total of 83 seats on top of his certain states.
To that end, if Biden wins his certain states and Florida, which has 29 Electoral College seats, it is likely he will only need Pennsylvania for the presidency to be his. If he loses Florida, Biden will need Pennsylvania and three other swing states to win. If he loses Florida and Pennsylvania, then it will go down to the wire, with Trump only requiring another three of the remaining six states to take the White House, whereas Biden would need to prevail in at least four of them. Except — and by now you’d be expecting a surprise — two of the swing states do not have rules enforcing Electoral College individuals to vote with their party. In Georgia and Pennsylvania, it is possible that a party could win in the state, but “faithless” Electoral College voters could exercise the right given to them by the Founding Fathers to vote against the will of the electorate. This happened in 10 instances in the 2016 election.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, no one pretends that democracy is perfect. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms. However, the result of this US election and the ensuing administration’s policies are pivotal for the rest of the world. To that end, it is surely worth some reflection that the world’s leading democracy persists with an electoral scheme that could produce a wholly undemocratic result for the third time this century.
What is for sure is that, whichever way the Electoral College votes, the upcoming US electoral process and its fallout are going to be riveting to watch.
• Howard Leedham MBE is a former Royal Navy Commander and British Special Forces Officer. Twitter: @howardleedham