Welcome to my series of myths/facts about our unique presidential system. There are many common misconceptions about our Electoral College. One such myth has to do with equality. Does the Electoral College disenfranchise voters in some states?
Please don’t miss the earlier installments here:
Myth: Most voters don’t count in presidential elections. The winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes in the states ensures that some voters are disenfranchised, left on the sidelines to watch, as voters in swing states determine the outcome of the election. Why bother to cast a Democratic vote in Texas or a Republican one in California? These are wasted votes.
Fact: To “disenfranchise” is to take away a person’s right to vote. No one in this country is losing his right to cast a ballot. This is a strong (and baseless) allegation that reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how our Electoral College system works today.
America’s presidential election process occurs in two phases: The first phase is a series of state-level elections that occurs on Election Day. We conduct 51 of these elections: one in each state and one in the District of Columbia. The purpose of these 51 elections is to determine who will represent each state in the second phase of the election: an election among the states. This second phase of the election occurs in December and typically gets less media attention.
Each of the 51 elections conducted on Election Day is a purely democratic election; every voter in every state retains his right to cast a ballot. Of course, as in any other election, there will be winners and there will be losers. The losers are not disenfranchised. They simply cast a ballot on the losing side of an election.
Let’s say it another way: If you were a Republican casting your ballot in California in 2016, you were on the losing side of the state-level election in California. Hillary Clinton carried California and was awarded its 55 electors. However, California Republicans are most emphatically not being disenfranchised. They are simply losing the election, just as they lost the last gubernatorial election. Their problem is not with the Electoral College. Their problem is a general one about how the Republican Party’s message is being received around California.
By the way, this can change. As recently as 1988, California was voting safely RED, not BLUE. The identity of safe and swing states changes over time.
Finally, remember that the winner-take-all system is not mandated by the Constitution. If a state wants to change to a different system of electoral allocation, it is welcome to do so. In fact, Maine and Nebraska have already made such a change. Their votes are allocated based upon congressional district.
To be fair, it should be noted that the state legislature does retain the right to select the electors on its own, without reference to a popular vote. Historically, this has occurred only in special circumstances. For instance, the Colorado legislature directly selected electors in 1876, shortly after it became a state. It had just held elections for its statewide offices in August, and it did not want to go to the expense of another election so soon. Similarly, in 2000, the Florida state legislature was prepared to appoint electors directly if disputes over its state’s ballots could not be resolved.
As a general matter, however, those few instances have been the exception, not the rule. Allegations that voters are being “disenfranchised” by the Electoral College are mere melodrama. America conducts 51 purely democratic elections each and every presidential election year; every voter in these elections retains his right to participate fully. What Electoral College opponents really mean by their claims of “disenfranchisement” and “waste” is that they feel emotionally better about one national, democratic election than 51 state-level, democratic elections.
For a discussion of the reasons that our Founders combined state action with democracy, please see my post on the subject, here.
Please don’t miss my books about the Electoral College! Books for both adults and kids are available HERE.