The Electoral College — A Bastion of Inequality

Image Source: Kathleen McCleary, “Does Your Vote Count? A Look into the Electoral College,” parade.com, Apr. 21, 2016

Should one citizen’s vote count for more than another’s?

Simple as this inquiry may sound, its answer has a profound impact on the society that chooses to pose it. When I begin a conversation with this basic question, the responses I receive tend to be along the order of, “Well, no, of course not” or perhaps the more reproachful, “Well, what exactly are you getting at here?” What I am getting at is simply this — that whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, Americans live in an environment in which we allow certain citizens’ votes to have a greater impact on elections, and, consequently, a greater impact on the laws and regulations that govern us.

Though the disproportionate allocation of power among citizens manifests itself in a myriad of ways, one of the most brazen means by which this occurs is the electoral college. Invented largely as a compromise between those of our country’s founders who supported a pure popular vote and those who supported a congressional vote for president, the electoral college is worse than antiquated — it is a guarantor of disproportionate representation in our government.

Consider this: when we cast our ballots for president, citizens of certain states have a greater influence on the overall outcome of the election than those of other states. According to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates as of July 2016, the ratio of citizens to electoral votes in Texas is roughly 733,000:1. In Wyoming, the same ratio is 195,000:1. As a result, a citizen casting a ballot in Wyoming has nearly four times the influence on the ultimate outcome of the election than does a voter in the state of Texas.

As much as I wish the unfairness of the electoral college began and ended with disproportionate voting influence, I am sorry to report that it does not. Another of its often-overlooked attributes is the “all-or-nothing” awarding of electoral votes to the candidate with the highest vote percentage — a practice that exists in 48 of our 50 states. As research from Voters for a Voice indicates, estimated turnout percentages of eligible voters in the 5 largest traditional “swing” states (Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia) was 65% for the 2016 presidential election — 8% higher than the average 57% turnout for the 5 largest traditionally non-contested states (California, Texas, New York, Illinois and Georgia). One conclusion, as you might have already guessed, is that voters in traditional non-swing states show up in smaller percentages than do those in swing states. And what could make more sense? Citizens of states rendered less influential at the hands of the electoral college rightly feel their votes just don’t matter as much as those of swing state voters, and may therefore be less inclined to turn out on election day.

Beyond the facts of the data lie still more troubling attributes of the electoral college. For example, under our existing system, no citizen actually votes for the president of the United States. Instead, citizens use ballots to mark their preferred candidate, who is associated with a slate of electors. Should their associated candidate win the state’s popular vote, these electors, who usually do not appear on the ballot themselves, are encouraged to vote for that candidate, but are often not legally bound to do so. Of the 50 states, 21 have no laws penalizing so-called “faithless” electors. While instances of faithless electors remain relatively infrequent historically, they are by no means nonexistent. As of the 2016 presidential election, there are nearly 200 known instances of electors either abstaining from a vote or voting against their pledged candidate. In fact, the 2016 presidential election alone saw 7 of 10 electors attempting a faithless vote succeed in doing so.

Such are the facts of the political framework in which we currently find ourselves as Americans, and the questions I leave you with you are these: should one citizen’s vote count for but a fraction of another’s? Should we support a system that discourages voters in certain states from showing up to the voting booth because they believe, understandably, that their votes matter less than others’? Should we allow unelected individuals the power to contradict the votes of hundreds of thousands of citizens, as many electors are legally permitted to do?

If you, like me, believe the electoral college is an inherently undemocratic institution that is long overdue for change, I implore you to make your opinion known. Become involved with one of the many organizations fighting for positive changes in our political climate, help to raise awareness by sharing the facts about the electoral college, and most importantly, contact your local representatives and ask them — are they on the right side of your freedom?

Nathan Musgrove is a voter and founder of Voters for a Voice, a non-partisan Brooklyn-based organization engaged in educating citizens, exploring creative solutions to and advocating for policies that promote equal representation in the American political system.