Abolishing the Electoral College is one of the things I’ll be working on before the next election. I want a representative democracy, don’t you?

The compilation of information below is the hard work of  Nicole Cardoza who is working tirelessly to educate us. Her daily newsletter is excellent. Subscribe here.

Most people don’t realize that the popular vote doesn’t choose the President of the U.S. That’s only the first step. States first vote in favor of a presidential candidate, which validates the states’ electoral college. Then, these “electors” from each of the 50 states gather in December and vote for the President (and Vice President). The person who receives a majority of votes from the “Electoral College” – at least 270 out of 538 total potential votes – becomes President (National Archives).

In case there’s a tie, The House of Representatives makes the decision. Each state gets one vote, and representatives of at least two-thirds of the states must be present for the vote. If they cannot decide by March 4, then the Vice President becomes President, and the person receiving the largest number of Vice President votes becomes Vice President (National Archives). 

This is why although, as of Wednesday evening, 3 million more people have voted for Biden than Trump*, the race results rely on a few thousand votes in Midwestern states. Therefore, the electoral college has been scrutinized for whether it accurately reflects the perspectives of the American people.

In 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the electoral college was created when delegates assembled to devise something to replace the Articles of Confederation (National Archives). But equitable representation, both in Congress and in this process, was a place of concern. Small states like Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia would dominate the presidency because of the wide disparity in population size. In addition, Southern states argued that because their population was comparable, but mainly because of non-voting enslaved African Americans, they deserved a more significant say. Furthermore, many delegates (from both the north and south) felt that the average voter might not be educated enough to be “trusted” to make a decision (The Atlantic).

So, they devised a plan where “upstanding citizens,” referred to as “electors,” the power to make the ultimate choice (Vox). They also increased the size of representation for southern states that enslaved African Americans using the three-fifths compromise, or that each enslaved person counted as ⅗ of a citizen. At this time, about 93% of the country’s enslaved population lived in just five southern states. This rule increased the size of the South’s presentation in the House and Senate by 42% (The Atlantic). The three-fifths compromise has impacted more than just our presidential electoral process. We discussed how it affects tax inequity to this day in a previous newsletter >

As a result, Thomas Jefferson from Virginia won the election against Northerner John Adams. Observers at the time noted that Jefferson metaphorically “rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves” (Time). And until 1860, southern slaveholders continued to lead in the White House until Abraham Lincoln’s administration (The Atlantic). The Thirteenth Amendment was passed shortly after that, but the damage of the Electoral College remains.

First off, it tends to misrepresent Southern communities of color. Although Black voters overwhelmingly vote blue, five of the six states whose populations are 25% or more Black have been reliably red – and three of those states haven’t voted blue in over 40 years (The Atlantic). It also gives disproportionate decision-making power to smaller states with smaller population sizes. 15% of American counties generate 64% of America’s GDP, according to Brookings. This economic activity is centered on the coasts and few metropolitan areas in between – but those communities get roughly 30% of the representation. This means that lower-income, rural communities aren’t left behind, which is essential when considering equity. But it also means that their views and perspectives impact a much larger population, often with conflicting views (Brookings). Consider the issue of race: more liberal voices fighting for equitable solutions for diverse communities can be drowned out or deprioritized by a population that doesn’t feel the same urgency.

There’s also the issue of “faithless electors,” which adds a whole other level of inequity to this issue. It’s assumed that electors will vote along with their state’s popular vote (which is what you’re witnessing in the current election projections), bringing the voice of their constituents with them to the ballot in December. But this isn’t always the case. In fact, there have been 157 faithless electors throughout history (Smithsonian Magazine). In my humble opinion, “backstabbing electors” sounds more fitting than “faithless electors.” In the 2016 election, a record number of 7 electors were allowed to vote against their state’s popular vote, two voting for someone instead of Trump, and five voted for someone instead of Hilary Clinton (NYTimes). Thankfully, thirty-two states have some type of faithless elector law, which will take action against electors that vote against the state’s popular vote. Fifteen of these removes, penalizes, or cancels the votes of the errant electors (NPR). Furthermore, in July this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can remove or punish faithless electors (NPR). Historically an election hasn’t been swayed by faithless electors, but it does leave the ambiguity. You can check the status of the National Popular Vote Bill in your state here >

Important to note: each state usually aligns all their electoral college votes to one candidate. But Nebraska and Maine are the only two states as of now that split them across candidates (Electoral Vote Map). One electoral vote in Nebraska has already been pledged to Biden*, despite the fact that Trump won the popular vote in the state. Learn more about its significance in the NYTimes.

Because of this, it’s likely no surprise that conversations on abolishing the electoral college are not new. Americans have overall supported abolishing the electoral college more and more as the years progress. As of 2020, 61% of Americans are in favor – although significantly more Democrats support than Republicans (Gallup). To abolish the Electoral College, at least two-thirds of both the House and Senate would have to vote in favor, in addition to 38 out of 50 states. Over the last two centuries, there have been over 700 proposals to overturn it. And although we’ve come close in the past, most recently in 1934, the practice still remains (Brookings). We might not be able to abolish it today, but we can take action as recommended above – and fight for this issue to be a part of future political decisions.

Note: abolishing the electoral college doesn’t eradicate the racist mindset that supported it. Even if we change the electoral college, that bias, which is evident in the popular vote this year, will remain. What also remains? The rampant voter suppression, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment that has plagued both this election season – and elections throughout history. If you want to see the electoral college abolished, be sure you’re also committed to ensuring that every voice is heard, and that our government isn’t using oppression as a tool for political gain.