The Electoral College: How America made its direct election indirect

A brief explainer of the US electoral system and why do most Americans today oppose the Electoral College system and see it as an impediment to democracy.

electoral college
The USA flag

How does the American model of democracy work?

To understand the American system, it is important to remember its origin. The United States of America began when thirteen of the original British settler colonies on the North American east coast broke away in 1776. The name, United States of America, implied that these were separate States, occupying the American continent, coming together under a central government. The States would retain their autonomy, and citizens of the new country would be dual-citizens, both of a State and the USA.

The basis of the new nation was a fusion of many overlapping ideological and economic themes. Communities, like the Quakers, wished to reinvent themselves in a new land. In some cases, those communities practised slavery. The colonies became economically independent of Britain and did not need Britain’s political or military presence. Some wished to reject British treaties with the Native American populations and conquer the West. Also, some colonists followed the Liberal Enlightenment and wanted to test those ideas in a country that did not have a traditional aristocracy.

As different colonies came with different concerns, what resulted was an agreement that would combine many systems of governance. Their unity was fragile, so compromises were reached. Locally, the political systems of the colonists would remain, which were a mixture of what they learned from the local indigenous populations, like the Iroquis, and traditions they developed. The colonists insisted that each colony would retain some degree of autonomy, and join as a new state. The states would be “united” under a central government. The capital, Washington D.C., was located exactly in the middle of the country (at that time) and was not part of any state, to be neutral.

The Central government would have three independent branches, the judiciary, the executive, and the legislative, similar to the British system. As the colonies did not have a king, the executive would be decided by the same process as the legislature.

The American Legislature

The American legislature would be composed of two parts. The Senate, analogous to the House of Lords in Britan (or the Rajya Sabha in latterday India), would have two representatives from each state. As America did not have a traditional aristocracy, these representatives would be voted on by the citizens in the state.

The House of Representatives, sometimes called the House, is analogous to the House of Common in Britain (or the Lok Sabha in latterday India), would represent the population. The country was divided into districts. Within the district, citizens could vote for their representative.

The Electoral College

Alongside the election of the legislature, would be the election of an executive head, or the President.

Many colonies opposed a direct election by the people, as they felt that individual colonies would lose power if their population dwindled, especially in slave-permitting states. These states were more agrarian and had a smaller population density. At this time, only land-owning white men would be permitted to vote, so this was a real concern to slave-owners who owned large tracts of land and would have a smaller voting population. To placate these concerns, the Americans adopted the Electoral College system.

One major concern for some of the colonists was the status of slavery. The American map was drawn in such a way that slave-permitting states and slave-abolishing states would be balanced. The history of American states aimed to preserve that balance. Often when a new state was added to the country, old states would be divided to ensure the balance.

Under the Electoral College system, each state has a certain number of votes. The number of votes is the sum of the number of Senators (two for each state) and the number of Representatives (roughly proportionate to population). Within each state, citizens decide which candidate their state supports by a majority vote within the state. The state’s support is weighted by the number of seats it holds in the Electoral College. The Presidential candidate that has the majority in the Electoral College wins the election.

Problems with the system

Critics of the system have pointed to its checkered history. It was the product of a compromise that outlived its purpose.

First, it gives people in states with small populations unfairly high representation and reproduces the high power states with a high agricultural sector has. In America, farmers have become very rich, mostly because of the high subsidies they receive from the government, though they are 1.3% of the population.

Second, the system is unnecessarily indirect. Sometimes the majority of the people can vote for one candidate without the electoral college reflecting that. Both in the election of Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush against Al Gore, the Electoral College selected one candidate. The majority voted for the other.

Third, the emphasis on the rights of the states was an offshoot over early debates to retain slavery and promote white dominance today. This done consciously in the first half of the independent USA. States were added and bifurcated to maintain an electoral balance between states that permitted slavery and those that did not. Recently, it has been noted that the Electoral College has been a tool in maintaining White dominance, as in areas where African Americans have a strong presence, their votes are often overridden by the local white majority. This trivializes their democratic rights today. The system also makes it difficult for alternative parties to rise in the system, giving power to the two dominant political parties.

What are the Swing States?

In most states in the USA, the political climate is such that the winning presidential candidate is forgone. Some states will always support a Democratic candidate, and some states will always support a Republican candidate. In those states, there is little point in campaigning for votes. This means that the Presidential race is focused on areas where the outcome is uncertain. These states are often called the Battleground States, or the Swing States, as they can swing the election.

Most Americans today oppose the Electoral College system and see it as an impediment to democracy. It reduced the voting power of most Americans, makes it difficult for alternatives to rise. Especially after the 2016 Presidential election, when Donald Trump won the presidency, while his opponent, Hillary Clinton won more votes, many Americans have expressed frustration with this system that has carried over from a bygone era.

Also Read:Crimmigation: Making the Immigrant a Criminal in the United States

The writer is a mathematician and political observer based in Bangalore.


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