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A Flawed System? Electoral Democracy in America

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

Writing by Fairuz Farhoud. Illustration by David Richards.

The electoral system in America has been in existence for over 200 years and to elect the President, the system of the Electoral College is used. This is a deeply flawed arrangement which results in undemocratic processes. This article will focus on the Electoral College, Senate elections, gerrymandering and voter suppression. However, this is not an exhaustive list of problems surrounding elections in America. Other issues that undermine American democracy can be seen in issues like campaign finance contention, foreign intervention and countless more.

The Electoral College is a group of people (constitutionally required), who every four years vote the President and the Vice President into office. There are 528 electors, meaning that 270 is the crucial number of electors needed for success in American elections. The number of electors per state is down to population size, giving states like Texas and California significant sway over smaller ones such as Alaska or Wyoming. One of the notable concerns of the Electoral College is that of faithless electors. These are electors who do not vote in line with the popular vote. In the 2016 election, there were 10 faithless electors, however, 3 were discounted due to elector laws. Whilst faithless electors do pose a threat to the election results, in 2016 they only saw Clinton lose 5 votes, and Trump 2, which did not alter the election outcome. They’re not a huge threat to democracy, especially compared to the rest of the College at work.

The Electoral College is undoubtedly a major issue of contention with the US elections, especially due to the way results are calculated. A Republican President has not won the popular vote since 2004, with Bush winning with 50.7% against John Kerry. Look only four years further back, and Bush lost the popular vote by 0.5%. The past 20 years has only seen three elections where the popular vote was represented in the election outcome. This is a severe failure of American democracy: a win of 3 million votes was not enough for Clinton. The election this year is of paramount importance, and there is significant and founded fear that the 2020 election will follow a similar path where Biden wins the popular vote, but Trump gets the 270 Electoral College votes and thus wins the Presidency. If this happens, not only will the Presidency lack a legitimate mandate, but the entire Presidency will be undermined once again. Many states are already preparing for ensuing riots, from both sides, by boarding up shop windows. This preparation proves that democracy in America is not working and it is causing deep-seated frustration and anger within communities.

The College results in some states becoming more important in elections, based on their number of Electoral College votes or how much they swing between Democrat and Republican outcomes - known as swing states. Due to the Electoral College’s first-past-the-post system, these states are vital as the vote will not be split between the candidates. The first-past-the-post system also encourages a two-party system, allowing for few alternative and radical candidates to even stand a chance. The result of this? Over-campaigning in a few states, ignoring safe states such as California and Kentucky. This means that in every election cycle, Pennsylvania receives more campaigning, with only 20 Electoral College votes, than California, even though it has 55. It could be argued that this gives smaller states the potential to feel more ‘heard’ compared to mega-voting states. However, the 2020 cycle has seen large states such as Texas (with 38 votes) be heavily contested. Furthermore, of the 13 smallest states, only New Hampshire is consistently and regularly considered a swing state. Therefore, the first-past-the-post system and subsequent swing states do not ensure that smaller states are equally campaigned towards.

The Senate follows an election system that attracts equal frustration as the Electoral College. This is because all states receive two Senators regardless of population size, except for Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico which do not have representation in the federal government. Consequently, California (with a population of 39.5 million) and Wyoming (with a population of just over half a million) are equally represented in the Senate. This leads to the overrepresentation of smaller states. In the case of Wyoming, both the Senators are Republican, giving a Republican advantage. In general, the system favours smaller states and due to the current political climate, this means it favours Republican states. The University of Virginia predicts that by 2040, only 8 states will house half the population, or only 16 seats in the Senate: a gross misrepresentation of the people. Dooming the more populated Democratic states, and leaving the popular vote in the gutter. In the 2018 Senate midterm, when 33 seats were contested, the Democratic vote received 58.4% of the popular vote yet lost two seats. Consequently, the Republicans gained two seats with only 38.8% of the popular vote. Not only do small states dominate the Senate, but they can also sway the House Republican without the popular vote. A counter-argument could be that the House of Representatives is based on population, therefore ensuring equal representation. However, the existence of the Representatives does not diminish the extreme importance of the Senate. One only must look towards the recent appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, now giving the Supreme Court a dangerously high conservative makeup of 6-3, to see the disastrous consequences of a Senate tilted to Republican favour.

Gerrymandering is a mostly legal, but politically crude practice of changing political boundaries to favour political outcomes, based on the political makeup of populations within these boundaries. This is a partisan effort and almost always influenced by the party in control of that state. Whilst extreme gerrymandering is deemed unconstitutional, it has only been officially claimed so when race becomes the main element of restructuring. Racial gerrymandering works by attempting to separate demographic groups based on race, in order to minimise the influence of a racial group. This is based on the assumption that people of colour are more likely to vote Democrat. It is worth noting, that while this is currently a partisan issue, both Democrats and Republicans partake in gerrymandering.

The most recent examples are mainly from Republican states, such as North Carolina in 2018. Republicans gained 50% of votes but 77% of available seats and not a single seat flipped Democratic, due to aggressive gerrymandering that was actually determined unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. This is because the Republicans held more state governorships and legislature positions (especially in swing states) in 2018 than Democrats, by a margin of 17. The consequences of gerrymandering on the state of democracy are significant and harm American claims to it. Effectively, it works to silence dissenting voices.

Voter suppression is an issue in every single election cycle. The requirement of photo ID laws disproportionately affects African American and Hispanic voters, as a federal court found that Texas’ 2011 ID laws discriminated against these voting groups due to the type of ID’s that were allowed. While ID laws are being introduced to prevent impersonation, there have been only 31 proven cases of voter impersonation from 2000-2014. These restrictive laws have no such interest in stopping voter fraud; instead, they are put in place to actively disenfranchise groups of voters, often people of colour and college students. Again, groups that tend to vote Democrat. There is a real possibility and general concern that the 2020 election will be called, without all mail-in and absentee votes being counted. This is more likely to lead to an assumed Republican win, as this election cycle it has become clear Democrats are voting by mail significantly more than their Republican counterparts.

This election is unique for so many reasons: the pandemic, the nature of Trump’s rule, the deep unrest within American society and so on. However, this election will also showcase age-old issues that have weakened the state of democracy in America. The Electoral College’s failures, gerrymandering, unrepresentative Senate elections and voter suppression will happen this year, as they have in previous years. Without major reform, these exact issues will also happen next election cycle and will continue to degrade America’s democracy.

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