Michael Hogg October 15, 2020

On November 3rd America will go to polls to elect a new President, the winner becoming the most powerful person in the World. The contest will be a two-horse race between the Donald Trump, the incumbent Republican candidate, and Joe Biden, the former US vice-President under Obama, running for the Democrats.

You would think, in a country that prides itself on its democracy, that the person who wins the most votes in this nationwide poll would become President. But this is not the case. Four years ago, Hilary Clinton gained 2.9 million votes more than her rival, Trump, but lost the election. In fact, this has happened five times. The others were George W Bush, who lost by 543,816 votes to Al Gore in the 2000 election, Benjamin Harrison, who lost by 95,713 votes to Grover Cleveland in 1888, Rutherford B Hayes, who lost by 264,292 votes to Samuel J Tilden in 1876 and John Quincy Adams, who lost by 44,804 votes to Andrew Jackson in 1824. Therefore, in these cases, the losers became the winners.

The reason why this can happen is because the President is not directly elected by the people, but by a body known as the Electoral College, not a building, which meets once every 4 Years in Washington DC to elect the President and Vice President, its sole purpose.

This all began in the late 18th Century, when the Founding Fathers thought up the idea of the Electoral College as a compromise between those who wanted a popular vote and those who wanted the President to be elected by Congress. This system, despite a few minor amendments, is still in use today.

When people go to the polls on the “Tuesday following the first Monday in November” (the US constitution), every four years, they are not voting for the President and Vice President, they are voting for a member of the Electoral College, who you want to vote for your chosen candidate in Washington. In fact, the presidential election itself, does not take place, officially, until the middle of December when the college meets. This delay goes back to the early days of the Union, (before the iPhone), when electors had to gather the votes from across their states, count them and make the long, often hazardous journey, on horseback to Washington to cast their vote. Even with modern technology they are loath to change this tradition.

The composition of the Electoral College reflects the population of each of the fifty states, larger states having a greater representation than smaller ones. It is based on the number of Senators and House of Representative members each state sends to Congress. There is one elector for each of the 100 Senators (two for each State) and the 435 representatives, plus 3 from DC, that has no representation in Congress. Giving a total of 538. The six states with the most electors are California (55), Texas (38), NewYork (29), Florida (29), Illinois (20), and Pennsylvania (20). The District of Columbia and the seven least populous states, Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming, have three electors each. To become President a candidate needs to receive 270 college votes.

In the majority of states, the candidate winning the popular vote receives all of that state's votes at the college. However, Maine and Nebraska have taken a different approach. These states allocate two electoral votes to the state popular vote winner, and the remaining votes go to district winners (2 in Maine, 3 in Nebraska). Maine, in fact, in 2016 sent electors for both Trump and Clinton.

Although this system appears to work, it has, as stated earlier, created a situation where the elected President has not found favour with majority of voters, as in the case of Hilary Clinton.

This all comes about from the margins of victory in each state. In 2016 Clinton won California with a 4 million majority and New York by 1.7 million, these victories gained her 84 college seats, whereas Trump gained 16 electors in Michigan with only a 10,000 majority and won Pennsylvania by 44,000 giving him 20 votes. The massive majorities that Clinton won in a handful of states did not compensate for the Trump wins by wafer thin margins in many others. You could win 20 vital college votes with a majority of one, but will get the same reward even if you gained 90% of the popular vote.

Many agree that the Electoral College system of voting is long overdue for reform, but a change in the system would require an amendment to the constitution, which is a relatively rare occurrence. The main argument is that the result should reflect the size of the popular vote. This could be done by adopting a nationwide ‘first past the post’ vote system. However, this would go against the federal structure of the country, as it takes away the fundamental practice of individual states making their own decisions.

Much more plausible, and probably more of a possibility, would be to change the way each state directs its college electors. Instead of individual states giving all their votes to the winner they should allocate them proportionately to the number of votes cast to each candidate, thus mirroring voters’ wishes more accurately. If a candidate receives 60% of the popular vote, they would receive 60% of the Electors and not 100% as at present.

It is apparent that if someone wins nearly 3 million more votes and has been defeated by the system, the system needs to change. Whether or not a change will come about is doubtful, as the American people are conservative, proud of their traditions and many are, in many aspects of their lives, unwilling to see reform.

It is possible that we shall see a rerun of 2016 this time round, if so, it will be a bad day for America’s democratic traditions.





Staff October 15, 2020


Staff October 15, 2020