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Is the Electoral College really working for US presidential elections?

The electoral system in the US can appear to us mere mortals outside of the Fifty States as a monolithically complex system of voters, delegates, colleges and primaries, all bound together by an endless cycle of debates.

With the news that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 1,000,000, everyone who predicted that this centuries- old system would come under far greater scrutiny is being proved right. Specifically, fingers are pointing at the Electoral College for giving America a President Trump, despite the fact that the majority of voters chose a President Clinton.

Today the Electoral College is considered a cornerstone of American democracy, as intended at its conception in 1787 when the US was establishing itself as a democratic utopia. In its initial incarnation, the Electoral College was responsible for ensuring that congressional elections led to a fair and representative voice for all states, by allocating differing numbers of congressional representatives by population and geography.

However, since the Twelfth Amendment of 1804, the Electoral College has also been used in presidential elections. The only conceivable reason for this is that it ensures the president comes from the majority party in Congress, meaning that the president is able to pursue legislative change without being persistently blocked by an opposition in majority. However, considering that a strong Separation of Powers is also fundamental to the US Constitution, the distortionary function of the Electoral College casts its democratic origins in doubt.

This point is proven by the fact that in two presidential races since 2000, the candidate who won the popular vote has not won the presidency. These near-winners were Gore and Clinton, both Democrats who came tantalisingly close to the Oval Office. Even more shocking is that Hillary Clinton’s popular vote is the second highest in US history. With this evidence, we must surely challenge how suitable the Electoral College system is for presidential elections.

Let’s take a moment to consider what the Electoral College has taught us in this election cycle:

1. The vote of someone in Nebraska is less important than the vote of someone in Texas

Nebraska is only given five votes in the electoral college, whilst Texas gets 38. This means that the vote of someone in Texas is over six times more significant when electing a president.

2. Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Florida are full of more important voters than Maine or California

Because of the Electoral College having a ‘winner takes all’ effect in most states, certain key areas are identified as ‘swing states’. This means that candidates carry out their most intensive campaigns in the states that pollsters predict will land them the presidency. In this instance, the Electoral College encourages candidates to appeal to a core five or six states rather than the entire electorate.

3. It’s okay for only 51% of the population to feel disengaged from the election of their president

49% of the electorate didn’t turn out to vote. This is partly because some voters felt disengaged from a process which had returned them a choice in candidates that amounted to electing either ‘cancer or a heart attack’. However, knowing that your vote could effectively be worthless if your state is a known Republican or Democrat stronghold must also be responsible for making people feel that their vote had no purpose.

4. Trump was the rightful winner of the presidency, even though Hillary won the popular vote

Over 1,000,000 more people cast their vote for Clinton over Trump. Yet somehow Trump won the presidency by almost forty Electoral College votes. Surely there is something wrong when a voting system is able to distort the popular vote to such an extent.

5. Third parties have no hope of electoral success in the US

Third parties like the Greens and Libertarians won over 6,000,000 votes in this presidential election. Where is their representation? They have gained no voice as a result of their impressive tally of votes.

There is little doubt that the Electoral College performs a useful function in providing a proportional level of representation for each state in congressional elections. However, its presence in a presidential election is dubious given the distortion of the popular vote and the lack of political attention paid to voters in electorally ‘safe’ states. These phenomena are not conducive to a thriving and democratic electoral system.

Evolution and growth are integral processes in all aspects of politics. Indeed, modernising your rhetoric and interpreting today’s sentiments are paramount to political success. So shouldn’t it also stand to reason that the US Constitution, the most iconic document in the western world, is also able to evolve to embrace the requirements of modern democracy?

Charlotte Smith is a Researcher in the House of Commons. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.