What is the debate around the U.S. poll process?
The story so far: The 2020 U.S. presidential election has been one of the most bitterly polarised democratic exercises in recent memory. The winner, Democrat and former Vice-President Joe Biden, has won over 74 million votes, and his rival, incumbent Republican president Donald Trump, has garnered over 70 million votes. The fact that this election has seen one of the highest turnout numbers since 1960 suggests that voters and both campaigns pushed hard to get their chosen candidate elected. But despite the presence of both a ‘blue wave’ and a ‘red wave’, the final outcome came down to the wire, and hinged on narrow vote margins in a handful of ‘swing States’. These circumstances have fuelled anger over the lack of direct representation in the electoral system and has raised questions surrounding the viability of the institution, the ‘Electoral College’, that renders the popular vote insufficient to determine the victor.
How does the Electoral College work?
The Electoral College refers to the process by which the winner of the popular vote in each State is allocated a pre-specified number of electoral delegates, or electors, per U.S. State, and these electors go on to decide who the President of the country will be. The electors of each State are appointed by the Democratic and Republican Parties (and third parties, where applicable) of the State.
The college follows a winner-takes-all rule for the popular vote, giving the first candidate past the post all of the electors of that State. For example, if more than 50% of the voters in North Carolina vote for the Republican Party, then all the electors allocated to that State will be Republican. Each State has the same number of electors as it does members in its Congressional delegation, namely one for each member in the House of Representatives and two Senators. Across the U.S., there are 538 electors. To win the presidency, a candidate would be required to secure at least 270 votes in the Electoral College.
Are there any exceptions and caveats to this system?
The minor exceptions to this system are Maine and Nebraska, which appoint individual electors based on the winner of the popular vote for each Congressional district and then two electors based on the winner of the overall State-wide popular vote. Although it is rare for either State to have a split vote, that occurred in Nebraska in 2008 and in Maine in 2016.
Once the votes are in, the electors are required to meet on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December to cast ballots for the President and the Vice-President. In 2020, that will be on December 14.
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A caveat in the Electoral College system that might end up being salient to the 2020 election is that while an overwhelming majority of electors cast their vote for the President based on their prior party affiliation, there have been occasions in the past, howsoever rare, when the electors have surprised the college by picking another candidate than the one they were pledged to choose. These electors are known as “faithless electors”. Had Mr. Biden not won a significant number of Electoral College votes, a few such faithless electors might have endangered his prospects of entering the Oval Office.
Why is there frustration over the Electoral College today?
At the broadest level, there are two reasons why the Electoral College, as a mechanism for representing the will of the people, might be considered suboptimal.
Firstly, under this system, surprisingly few voters truly matter in an election. The reason is that except for a handful of ‘swing States’, which have the potential to flip from one party to the other, all the others have historically only voted for the same party, and are likely to do so this time too.
The swing States of the 2020 election included Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. Even with a historically high turnout this year, not all voters in these States would likely be independent or undecided voters, capable of switching votes from one candidate to another. This puts, according to some analyses, the proportion of voters actually determining the outcome of the U.S. presidential election well below 10% of the total population.
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If the Electoral College were done away with, and the popular vote at the precinct or county level became the criterion for victory in a presidential election, this would considerably expand the extent to which the preferences of the voting population were truly represented in the choice of political leaders.
Second, the Electoral College also comes packaged with complex and potentially self-defeating contingency proceedings in unusual election circumstances, some of which have occurred in the 2020 election. Consider this: If Mr. Biden had not obtained an undisputed majority of Electoral College votes, a ‘contingent election’ might have had to be held under the 12th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Under this system, the election of the President would have become the responsibility of the House of Representatives, with each State delegation casting one vote for its preferred candidate. This would also happen in a scenario where legal cases filed by the Trump campaign delay the confirmation of the final result. Given that red States outnumber blue States in this election, such a process might have led to Mr. Trump, rather than Mr. Biden, being confirmed by Congress as President. However, according to the Congressional record, only two presidential elections have been decided in the House, in 1800 and 1824 respectively.
How did the Electoral College come into being and why has it not been replaced by direct representation?
Some among the framers of the U.S. Constitution were of the view that Congress ought to elect the President, while some preferred that the power rest with State legislators or Governors. It was James Wilson of Pennsylvania, one of the founding fathers of the U.S., who suggested the Electoral College system as a compromise, wherein “electors would serve as informed intermediaries between the masses and their government and have independence to break from the popular vote in their States when they deemed that necessary”.
Ironically, another founding father of the country, Alexander Hamilton, endorsed the system in 1788 on the grounds that it guaranteed that U.S. Presidents would be “characters preeminent for ability and virtue” and not merely adept at “the little arts of popularity”.
Congressional proposals to pass a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College in favour of a direct, popular election, were put forth in 1969, and again a decade later, but the measures never reached the required two-thirds majority. Efforts by Democratic Senators to revive this discussion in 2019 have not advanced either.
Resistance to such change comes not only from swing States, which receive outsized focus from presidential candidates during election campaigns, but also from smaller States with relatively minuscule populations, who fear loss of voice in the federal government system, should the Electoral College be abolished.