To a U.S. immigrant who grew up under a de facto dictatorship and election fraud, the quotation “All men are created equal” was unfamiliar and utopic. But the electoral college system brought me back home.
Starting with the Bush-Gore election, eight years after I immigrated to the US at the age of 19, exhilaration has become a trademark of the American presidential election. Following TV coverage on election nights has been as exciting as watching my alma mater, in which I was enrolled for 10 consecutive years, play in the College Football National Championship. America invented the most thrilling modern-day sports competition, football, but that was earlier surpassed by the electoral college system. Its implementation has resulted in captivating spectacles before, during and after the elections. It appears as if our founding fathers knew how to create “must see TV” 200 plus years before it happened.
By only focusing on the current assigned number of electoral votes for each state, which is based on 2010 census populations, the math behind the distribution of the votes is simple. All of the electoral votes in each state, except for 2 (Group A), are awarded to one presidential ticket, the one that wins the majority of votes in that state. Three votes are allocated to the eight least populated (under 1 million population based on the 2010 census) states/districts (Group B). For any of the other 41 states (Group C), and after assigning the first three electoral votes to about the first million of its population, the number of assigned votes, to a large extent, becomes proportional to its remaining population.
When compared to Group C, the electoral vote allocation for states/districts in Group B is significantly inflated. For instance, Colorado’s ratio of millions of people compared to electoral votes is about 5 to 9 while DC’s is about 0.6 to 3; Colorado’s population is about 8 times that of DC, yet its electoral vote allocation is only 3 times more. Even within Group C, the electoral vote allocation is disproportionate, consistently rewarding states with lower populations. A state with about 1.6 million people — such as Idaho — receives 4 electoral votes while a state with about 9.9 million people — like Michigan — receives 16; Michigan’s population is about 6.3 times that of Idaho, yet its electoral vote allocation is only 4 times more. California’s population is about 3.8 times that of Michigan yet its electoral vote allocation is about 3.4 times more (55). The trend is clear — a larger state is always electorally disadvantaged when compared to a smaller state.
In the last eight presidential elections, the Democratic Party has had a considerable electoral vote disadvantage, which is most likely to amplify over time.
A. With the exception of the 1992 Clinton-Bush election, which Bill Clinton won handily in terms of popular and electoral votes, five of the eight states/districts in Group B voted red while three voted blue. Thus, states with the most inflated electoral-vote allocation have generally favored the Republication candidates.
B. The most-populated states, which currently hold 20 or more electoral votes and are most disadvantaged in terms of electoral-vote allocation, typically voted blue by an electoral vote ratio of more than 2 to 1: Pennsylvania (20): 7x, Illinois (20): 8x, Florida (29): 3x, New York (29): 8x, Texas (38): 0x, and California (55): 8x. Thus, states with most deflated electoral-vote allocation have generally favored the Democratic candidates.
C. As the populations of red-leaning Florida and solid-red Texas are rapidly growing with migrants from the Rust Belt’s highly-populated and mostly-blue states, their electoral-vote allocations are significantly, yet justifiably, increasing at the expense of the Rust Belt’s counterparts. The same phenomenon does not necessarily hold true with states that have 4-9 assigned electoral votes and declining population trends (mostly red) because the current system allows their electoral vote allocations to be perpetually inflated. Thus, inflated/deflated electoral-vote allocations will continue to favor the Republican candidates going forward.
It is not a surprise that in the last eight elections, the Republican ticket won the popular majority once yet the electoral majority three times. Given our societal changes, census patterns, and the current system for determining electoral-vote allocation, it appears that the Democratic presidential ticket needs a considerable, growing-with-time, popular-vote advantage to be competitive for the electoral majority. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had about 3 million votes more than Donald Trump, yet she lost the electoral majority by a considerable margin. In 2020, Joe Biden won the electoral majority with, ironically, an identical margin to how Clinton lost it, yet he had about 7 million votes more than Trump.
Based on the nuances of the current allocations of the electoral votes and the results of the recent presidential elections, I have concluded the following paradoxes:
• Explicit: Winning the White House is not a popularity contest; it is about strategy.
• Implicit: A vote is worth more in a less populated state than in a more populated one.
• Distressing: We promote social equality, but on an average, the red presidential vote is currently worth more than the blue one. Consequently, one could infer that the white/male/heterosexual/US-born votes are worth more than the colored/female/LGBTQ/immigrant votes. It appears that 21st-century America is using a presidential election system that brings together all types of social injustices.
• Incongruous. We like democracy, but it appears that we enjoy the entertainment of competitive elections even more.
A democracy that results in a monopoly is not an American trait. There is no thrill when the growing liberal majority always wins. In a demagogic statement, Trump once said “We’re going to win so much, you may even get tired of winning!” He is right about the “tired of winning” aspect. In America, we impose a salary cap in professional sports for this exact reason — the electoral college system has morphed into a “salary cap” in the political arena. It has evened the playing field by capping the impact of certain votes on the election outcome, disenfranchising these votes while overweighting others.
I want to emphasize that besides creating close elections, thrill, and entertainment, the electoral college system has some merits. It makes each one of us occasionally identify with election “winners,” even when they don’t democratically win; it keeps the voters of both parties always engaged. It also seems to be reasonably accurate in fractionating the executive power, which is binary and held by the majority in a democracy over time; based on the US population, is the ratio of republicans to democrats, using whole numbers adding up to 8 (last 8 presidential elections), 3 to 5?
But the benefits of the current implementation of the electoral college system do not outweigh its shortcoming — the assault on democracy and social justice. Its bias, even if it periodically flips between both parties, is not justified. The historical reasoning behind its rules cannot sanction social inequality.
The idea of a presidential election system solely based on the country’s popular vote has been exhaustively analyzed. I realize that it presents a nightmarish scenario for conventional candidates/campaigns. For example, energizing the Republican voters in California and the Democratic voters in Alabama would become as important as energizing the voters in recently contested Pennsylvania. A practical and intermediate solution, nonetheless, is to increase the total number of electoral votes and then accurately allocate them based on the population of each state or district. This approach would, at least, remove the consistent unfair advantage towards states with lower populations and the subsequent vote disenfranchisement. It would also maintain the autonomy of, and the practice of democracy within each state.
Based on my calculations, the new implementation of the electoral college system would have reversed the outcome of the Bush-Gore election and diminished the 2016 electoral-vote difference, thus debunking Trump’s claim of a landslide victory. I believe these outcomes would have aligned more with then America’s presidential choices than what actually happened.
Ultimately, however, a presidential election system, based on the popular vote, is the only approach that can completely eliminate the systemic vote disenfranchisement. I could argue that the logistical difficulties associated with such a system will be substantially mitigated over time — it is not outlandish to assume that the absolute majority of post-pandemic, accustomed-to-virtual-meetings, and born-after-1970 Americans will not need to physically attend campaign rallies to get excited about voting for their candidate. Thus, it will not be difficult for campaigns to energize their potential voters remotely — they can take a cue from Biden campaigning from “his basement,” according to Trump, but still managing to win the popular and electoral majority by a considerable margin.
We should urge our elected officials to reach across the aisle and engrave their legacy through creating a fairer presidential election system where the American vote is “created equal” regardless of where it comes from and whom it represents. The bar is not high when the current standard has just allowed identical electoral majority to be obtained by candidates with 3 million less, and 7 million more votes, than their opponents. No need to be alarmed — America’s unmatched innovation should still be capable of producing the election thrills that would keep us glued to all types of media outlets.
Tamer S. Ibrahim is a bioengineering professor at University of Pittsburgh.
This article was originally published on The Geopolitics. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.