Many people will wonder why American presidential candidates; such as Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) and Joseph R. Biden (D-Delaware), compete so hard for a few hundred votes.
You can find the answer in how American states appropriate Electoral College votes. The Electoral College is the unelected body that selects the President. States base their choice of presidential electors (the College’s members) on the popular vote.
The most common method for selecting electors can magnify the importance of small groups of voters in “swing” or battleground states. A swing or battleground state has a history of close elections and can have no majority party.
Winner-Take-All or the Majority Loses
The U.S. Constitution does not specify a method for selecting presidential electors. Instead, each state government decides how t chose electors.
Currently, 48 of the 50 states use the winner-take-all or first-past-the-post method for selecting electors. In a winner-take-all, or general ticket election, the candidate with the most votes wins.
For example, in 2020, just 41,223 votes gave Joe Biden Pennsylvania’s 20 electors. In detail, Biden received 49.7% of the Keystone’s state votes and Trump 49.1% Thus, Pennsylvania gave Joe Biden the White House with a margin of only 0.6%.
Hence it is easy to see why some Trump supporters claim Biden stole the election. Frighteningly, some Trump supporters were holding Stop the Steal rallies and protests on 7 November 2020.
The Unpopular Majority
Winner-take-all also shows how the United States can have a president who does not win the popular vote. To explain, America’s states do not reflect the nation’s population.
America’s interior is full of smaller white Christian majority states; such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, Idaho, and Kansas. Those states can help a Republican candidate can win the presidency without the popular vote.
To elaborate, Trump who claims to be a champion of white-Christian America, has a powerful appeal to voters in smaller heartland states. Those heartland states offer enough votes to deliver an Electoral College majority – if Trump can win a few higher population states.
This creates the battlegrounds, high-population states where minorities can sometimes give Republicans an edge. For instance, Cuban-Americans and conservative retirees from the Midwest helped Republicans carry Florida.
One problem in America is that the Democrats are strongest in secular, multiracial, and high-population states; such as California with its 55 electoral votes, and New York with its 29 electoral votes. On paper this gives this Democrats an Electoral College advantage because they enter the presidential race with around 100 electoral votes locked in. Presently, a candidate requires 270 Electoral College votes to be President.
However, winner-take-all allows Republicans to hack the system if they can win slim majorities in a few more populous states such as Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Historically, the Republicans win one high-population state; Texas.
Changing demographics are slowly destroying the Republican majority in Texas and Georgia. To elaborate, Texas is historically a white Christian majority state that is changing because of in-migration of younger, more secular, and more diverse residents.
Moreover, Biden was leading in Georgia by a tiny margin of 0.2% on 8 November 2020. To elaborate, Google estimates Biden had 49.5% of Georgia’s vote (2.646 million) to Trump’s 49.3% (2.455 million). Democrats have a slight edge in Georgia because of a large African-American population and sophisticated new targeted get out the vote efforts.
This situation creates undemocratic politics in which campaigns are laser-focused on certain minorities. Democrats only campaign among African-Americans or suburban wine moms and Republicans only market to “white evangelicals” and middle-aged white males. They ignore everybody else, including the 45% of Americans I consider secular.
Thus winner-take-all Electoral College explains why many American do not vote and ignore politics. The politicians offer them nothing. For instance, politicians rarely discuss important economic issues such as poverty, homelessness, income inequality, the retirement crisis, technological unemployment, infrastructure, and lack of basic government services, because politically important minorities have little interest in such issues.
Instead, voters get a steady diet of guns, God, low taxes, Culture War, Democrats are evil propaganda, and race-baiting from Republicans, and unions, Culture War, gay rights, Republicans are evil propaganda, marijuana, and abortion from Democrats. Candidates can ignore grave catastrophes such as Climate Change and Coronavirus because their job is to appeal to self-absorbed minorities.
Are Districts the Solution to the Electoral College?
There are alternatives to Winner-Take-All that could make the Electoral College more democratic. The most promising Winner-Take-All alternative is Electoral College districting.
To explain two states, Nebraska and Maine, select presidential electors by Congressional district. This system provides more ideological diversity because they base Congressional districts on population. For example, Maine gave President Trump one electoral vote and Joe Biden two Electoral College votes.
Perhaps, Winner-Take-All’s most unfair aspect is the way it disenfranchises tens of millions of presidential election voters. To elaborate, 4.741 million Californians voted for Trump in 2020. Yet California Republicans are irrelevant in Presidential elections because all the Golden State’s 55 electors are Democrats.
Hence Trump ignored California in the election.Yet more people voted for the Donald in California than in over a dozen heartland states.
Similarly, Democrats ignore the 5.218 million Texans who voted for Biden. Predictably Biden’s decision to campaign in Texas in October 2020 became major news.
One result of Winner-Take-All is that presidential candidates ignore some enormous cities. For instance, no Democrats visit Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, or Laredo, Texas, and no Republicans appear in Bakersfield, or Fresno, California. Even though those communities are full of loyalists.
America contains many staunch Republican and pure Democratic areas the presidential candidates of those parties ignore. For example, the Western Slope of Colorado, a rock-ribbed Republic region. No Republican nominee goes there because he knows all nine of Colorado’s electors will vote Democrat. Similarly, no Democratic nominee will go to the Liberal Enclave of Nashville, Tennessee, because she knows all the Volunteer State’s Electors will be Republican.
Adopting Electoral College Districting nationwide could rectify this situation. For example, under districting three or four of my home state of Colorado’s nine electors could be Republican. Colorado has seven US Representatives, three of whom are Republicans. Under Districting three of the nine Electors could be Republicans.
I predict Republicans will start proposing Electoral College Districting, if states such as Georgia, and Texas start trending Blue. I think districting could allow Republicans to retain several electors from each of those states if they go blue. On the other hand I cannot picture Democrats allowing such districting.
However, I cannot see Democrats allowing districting in dark blue high-population such as California, New York, and Illinois. To explain, districting in New York and Illinois could make Republicans more competitive in nationwide Electoral College races.
One advantage to districting is that it will not require a Constitutional Amendment. Instead, they can implement Constitutional Amendment districting through the proven processes of state legislatures or ballot measures. Maine adopted districting through ballot measures.
National Popular Vote or Electoral College Abolition
A more popular; but less viable idea than districting, is the National Popular Vote or Electoral College Abolition. Most Americans favor eliminating the Electoral College and electing the president by popular vote.
The advantage to the national popular vote is that it is democratic and reflects the popular will. The disadvantage is that national popular vote could disenfranchise minorities. For example, a secular, liberal Republican, who despises Evangelical Christians, could win the national popular vote. To elaborate I think secular Americans who make up around 45%, while Evangelicals make up 25%.
A related problem is that I think presidential candidates will focus on a few high-population states if we had a national popular vote. For instance, candidates will spend all their time in Texas, Florida, California, New York, Pennsylvania, and perhaps Ohio. The rest of the country will get a few TV ads or Zoom meetings with the candidate. Hence, the National Popular Vote will not solve the problem of presidential candidates ignoring most of America.
One obvious fear a national popular vote generates is that of a populist tyrant; such as President Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee), who tramples minority rights and ignores political norms. Trump plays such a character on TV, Andy Jackson was the real deal; he ignored the Supreme Court, ordered the army to drive Native Americans off their land, and threatened to march into South Carolina at the head of an army and hang his political opponents there.
I think a more realistic fear is constant gridlock in Washington DC with the president always at odds with one or both houses of Congress. Note: we’ve already had that situation for the better part of the last decade. Many pundits predict it will return in January if Republicans control the Senate.
A National Popular Vote could make such gridlock far worse by giving us a president whose ideology is at odds with both major parties. President Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) for example. Sanders; one of America’s most popular politicos, is a democratic socialist yet both major parties publicly reject socialism. Under a National Popular Vote, I think such gridlock is probable because polls show ordinary Americans embrace many policies both parties reject; including single-payer healthcare and high wealth taxes.
A national popular vote is improbable because Electoral College Abolition will require a constitutional amendment. However, there is an effort called the National Popular Vote Compact, which was on the ballot in Colorado this year.
If states containing 270 Electoral votes ratify the National Popular Vote Compact, it will obligate those states’ electors to vote for the winner of the popular majority in the presidential race. Thus, the National Popular Vote Compact could be unfair because electors’ votes will not reflect the voters’ preferences.
For example, the Compact obligates Colorado’s electors to vote for a Republican who wins a popular majority even if most Coloradoans vote for the Democrat. Furthermore, I think the compact could be unconstitutional if Congress does not approve it.
I think a National Popular Vote is improbable because Republicans can block it in state legislatures. Currently, it requires a vote of two-thirds of the state legislatures to approve a Constitutional Amendment. Republicans control around half the nations’ state legislatures.
Politicians can do an end run around state legislatures by calling a new Constitutional Convention (Con-Con). However, a Con-Con also requires a vote of two-thirds of state legislatures.
The Never-ending Battle Electoral College Reform
“It has become a condition of American life that a citizen can always look forward to death, taxes, and Electoral College reform.” – U.S. Representative William M. McCulloch 5 February 1969.*
McCulloch was complaining about the endless battle for Electoral College reform that dates back to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Harvard History Professor Alexander Kessayar notes that the Founding Fathers discussed both a National Popular Vote and Districting – at the Constitutional Convention.
Kessyar estimates that Congress has received hundreds of Electoral College Reform proposals. However, almost all of those measures went nowhere. Electoral College reform has such a long history, Kessayar wrote a 400-page book on the subject; Why do we still have the Electoral College?
Thus, I predict the battle for Electoral College Reform or abolition will continue for the foreseeable future. However, I also think the current American status quo of presidents; such as Donald J. Trump (R-Florida), without a popular mandate is unsustainable. America will have to face the moral, philosophical, and legal questions such a president raises at some point.
For example, can such a chief executive lead the country into war? George W. Bush’s (R-Texas) adventure in Iraq created fatal divisions in American opinion that never healed. Or the draft, will Americans report for conscription to serve under a commander-in-chief with no popular mandate? Beyond war, what about taxes and national emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic?
For instance, I suspect one reason President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) was afraid to implement a nationwide mask requirement, a national stay-at-home order, or a national lockdown was his lack of a popular mandate. A President without a popular mandate Tweeting or signing unpopular legislation is a nuisance.
A president without a popular mandate issuing orders that interfere with daily life could create a backlash. Trump skillfully avoided such a backlash by refusing to implement national mandates. Trump’s lack of action fatally divided potential opponents into left-wing and right-wing camps.
However, epidemiologists believe a national mask mandate could save hundreds of thousand of American lives. Thus, lack of a popular mandate put Trump into the horrendous position of choosing between lives and political support.
Trump didn’t face the nightmare of crowds of angry protesters screaming they will not follow the illegitimate president’s unconstitutional orders. However, President-Elect Joe Biden could face that nightmare in January or February 2021.
Eventually America will have to do something about the Electoral College or face the nightmare of the presidency’s collapse.