Fixing our Presidential Election System
Clamoring for changes to our Presidential Election system often follows elections where the losing side feels disenfranchised by the end results. Blaming the system helps feed the victim narrative and presents a foil to focus partisan ire, when parties are arguably better served by examining their platforms and messaging. But that doesn't mean the United States can't improve their election process. We can and we should.How often have you heard it griped, "Why should I bother to vote in the Presidential race, I live in a [red/blue] state." California is home to over forty million Americans and votes consistently for Democrats in National elections. Texas has around thirty million and votes typically for Republicans. This effectively silences 40-50% of their combined population, that's close to thirty million Americans in just those two states. That only counts the citizens who bothered to vote. Many citizens don't for various reasons, a common refrain being, "It won't matter, my state votes the other way."
A defense of the winner-take-all system is that it represents the most voters but that's misleading. We don't even require a majority any longer, meaning that a candidate can win all a State's electoral votes without reaching a 51% majority. For example, in 1992 Bill Clinton won Washington State's 11 electoral votes by winning 43% of the WA vote, 993,037. This means that technically, more people voted against him, than for him. H.W. Bush recieved 731,234 and Ross Perot got 541,780, that's 1,273,014 Washington voters who did not vote for Bill.
Accepting a plurality, instead of a true majority didn't start until the 1820s according to Politico's fascinating look at reasons to change it back.Winner-take-all became the dominant method of appointing electors among the states after Andrew Jackson felt robbed of the presidency in 1824 and helped to persuade state legislatures to change their rules to permit plurality victories.
A climate of heated, partisan polarization only exacerbates voter apathy. Apathy which is already systemically supported by a winner-take-all system and allowance of plurality vs. majority victories. Calls for its complete abolishment in favor of a popular vote solution are common but there is a better solution. Keep the Electoral College but distribute the votes in a percentage-based allocation, as opposed to one-winner-represents-all. All candidates meeting a minimum threshold would receive electoral votes, results would be tabulated nationally as always. All states effctively just became purple.
How would it work?
Exactly as it does today. The only difference being that states would not award all electors to the majority winner of the popular vote, they would instead give a percentage of the vote to each candidate that earned them. As a floor, results would round to the nearest tenth of a percent, presenting a minimum threshold.
A direct popular vote is not a bad idea but it could easily make smaller states, cities & regions, ignored completely. If it's about how many votes, it's about numbers. Since the percentage system keeps the Electoral College intact plus removes winner-take-all, politicians are apt to campaign in more places, not less.
We can change the system, we have before.
After the initial Bill of Rights, we've amended the Constitution seventeen times and 59% (ten) of them have made changes to our election system in some fashion. Any idea of our system being sacrosanct, passed down intact from the Founders doesn't reflect our history.
Fifteen years after our very first election, Congress was already meddling with our Electoral College with the 12th Amendment (1804) and we haven't stopped since. It's been a generation since the last time America made a reform, perhaps it is time again. States have a lot of control over their elections but Congress nudges them along with standards from time to time, and without the above amendments, millions of Americans would be disenfranchised. The States have proven they tend to require guidance. It's time for some more.
How could it happen?
Given the current political climate, it's difficult to imagine any platform rising to the required approval ratings necessary to cross all the political boundaries to actually pass an amendment. But coming off recent election interference by foreign entities and a tepid response by the current holders of the executive branch, could embolden some logical changes. With the right messenger carrying a straight-forward list of National Election Standards, including a change to a percentage-based Electoral College system, it would have a chance.
Enemies of the plan would likely include long-standing political institutions which reside in States dominated politically by one party or the other. But parties are comprised of people. If enough people felt this change would enfrachise them and benefit democracy, parties would be forced to oblige.
Short an amendment, Congress could still act on their own via legislation but it would be difficult. Everything is viewed through a hyper-partisan lens, news cycles are bombastic and short, and the list of forces who like things as they are, is endless and well-funded. They would need a groundswell of constituent support and massive bi-partisan consensus before broaching that subject. But there are other things they could do to help increase participation and help reduce apathy.
What else can Congress do?
A new bill H.R.1 - For the People Act of 2019 was offered on February 8th, by the Democrats in the House of Representatives. Let's take a look at what's in it.
Those in favor of exclusive States' rights may disagree with the loss of purview on some issues. Others could have privacy concerns about PAC donations and political ad buys. But, for those in favor of more voter participation, the bill holds plenty of promise. At minimum, it's a starting point for discussion, a necessary one.
The cure for apathy is participation. With more participation, extreme positions fall back to their appropriate edges, allowing moderation and compromise to become less dirty words. Those opposed to participation under whatever guise are either satisfied with the status quo or fearful of what a more informed electorate might bring their personal fortunes. They've had run of the place for long enough, don't you think?
It's illogical to continue to build voter apathy directly into the system. A percentage-based Electoral College system would make a massive dent in such and bring renewed hope to millions of citizens who crave representation. Not everyone gets a trophy, mind you, someone will still win the election - but a vast majority of Americans will at least feel heard.