When Americans travel to countries that are governed by representative democracy (unfortunately, there are fewer of them now) one question that is asked of them is why Americans do not elect their president on the basis of votes received but of an antiquated system, the Electoral College. In 2016, Donald Trump received 46.9% of the popular vote (62,984,825) while Hillary Clinton garnered 48.18% of the popular vote (65,853,516). A different story played out in the Electoral College where Trump received 304 votes and Clinton was held at 227. It was not the first time that a president was elected despite losing the popular vote, and it will probably not be the last one.
Before Trump (who denied the outcome by insisting that the difference of almost three million votes was due to fraudulent votes by illegals), it happened in 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000, when George W. Bush prevailed over Al Gore, with the murky assistance of the Supreme Court. A constitutional amendment is required to abolish the Electoral College, a difficult procedure that requires two-thirds approval in both houses of the Congress and 38 states.
The debate over the Electoral College has been going on for years and is now entering a new phase that reflects the sweeping change brought about by the disruptive dynamics of the Trump presidency. The Founders were concerned with the risk of “tyranny of the majority” in which the will of the masses can drown out minority interests. The anomaly of a president like Trump is highlighted by what Alexander Hamilton observed at the time about the Electoral College, a device that would ensure that “the office of the president would never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications”. Centuries later, America is torn apart by the inadequacies of a president who has discarded any respect for the institutions and norms of governing.
In fact, the main focus of the electoral confrontation is the relentless campaign by President Trump to be reelected by the power of a minority entrenched in the Republican Party. In 2016, the Republican minority took advantage from the power that the Electoral College confers to the “swing states.” Presidential candidates need to pay attention to a limited number of states that can swing the election one way or the other. The actual popular vote totals are not in play. There is no “first at the post” in terms of a national number to elect a president. In 2016, Republicans won 52.2% of the seats with just under 50% of votes cast for Congress.
The population discrepancy between the smallest states and the largest states has grown and with it the geographical polarization. Half of America is urban and diverse. The other is white and entrenched in cultural resentment. There have been calls for changes in the representation of the districts, including a proposal by Congressman Don Beyer of Virginia, named Fair Representation Act. It went nowhere for the reason that anti-majoritarian beliefs are quite strong in America. President Trump elevated them to his populist ideology and to his pursuit of more power for the executive. The most detrimental aspect of Trump’s rule is that the opposition has little power to force Congress to curb him and even less to punish him, as Democrats tried to do with the articles of impeachment.
The polls consistently rate Trump’s appeal under 40% of the electorate. It is obvious that his base of loyal followers does not hold him accountable for anything he says and does, no matter how false it may be. The Electoral College was an integral part of the system of checks and balances that the Founding Fathers instituted to prevent the tyranny of the majority in spite of the fact that more than half the population was excluded from voting. Most of all, its main purpose was to prevent states with the largest populations from having undue influence. Just as important, it was designed to put the final decision in the hands of electors most likely to use the information at their disposal to make the best decision. In fact, this requirement has become moot because modern technology enables the voters to make informed decisions. The members of the Electoral College are selected by the political parties and are expected to vote according to party lines. In 2016, there were seven “faithless” electors, two pledged to Trump and five to Clinton, who voted for other candidates. Seen in this light as well, the Electoral College is indeed an anachronism. The “swing states” decide the winner. It is an historical fact that in 2016 Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton made more than 90% of their stops in just 11 battleground states. Four of them – Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina – claimed the lion’s share of the candidates’ campaign appearances. Something similar is bound to happen again. The expectation is that the election of the Democratic candidate Biden will shift the weight of governing from a minority to a majority, a welcome change for a return of America to its status, and its duties, as the world’s foremost democracy.