Jack Shields | United States
The 2016 election was a showdown between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton. The fact that the leader of the free world was going to be one of these individuals, both of whom were under FBI investigation, shows that our electoral system is in need of reform. Further compounding this need is the fact that Donald Trump received 2.8 million votes fewer than the loser, Hillary Clinton. The Electoral College is clearly a disaster which does not do an adequate job in achieving any of the noble goals presented by its supporters. However, the solution of going to a popular vote, by far the most popular idea, would be even worse. The Electoral College must be repealed and replaced with a ranked choice voting system, rather than relying on the popular vote.
The Failure of the Electoral College
The Electoral College was a disaster from the start. The system went unnoticed during the first two elections as George Washington was running, so it was really more of a formality than an actual election. Its flaws, however, became apparent in the election of 1796 between Federalist John Adams and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. At the time, the Electoral College operated under the rules prescribed in Article II Section 1 Clause 3, which gave each elector two votes for President. Whoever had the majority of votes became President, and whoever had the second most became Vice President. Adams won, becoming President, but rather than fellow Federalist, Thomas Pinckney, receiving the second most to become Vice President, Jefferson of the opposite party did. This made the Executive branch split ideologically for the only time in American history, causing tension and inefficiency. Problems continued in the election of 1800 when Democratic-Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes and the outcome of the election went to the House of Representatives. It was a brutal political battle that took 35 deadlocked votes before Alexander Hamilton convinced a minority of Federalist Representatives to back Jefferson in the 36th vote, making him the third President of the United States (a decision that would help lead to Burr killing Hamilton in a duel). Both sides understood our electoral system was a mess, so to remedy this the Twelfth Amendment was ratified in 1804, making each elector now have only one vote for President and one for Vice President.
While certainly an improvement, ratifying Twelfth Amendment was like applying a band-aid when surgery is required. Many more problems have surfaced since regarding Presidential elections and more and more band-aids have been added.
With electoral votes being what matters and not the votes of the people, the right to vote in a Presidential election was not and is still not guaranteed. The Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-fourth, and Twenty-sixth Amendments had to be ratified, along with the passage of countless laws, to at least clarify which characteristics can’t be used to prevent Americans from voting.
The Twenty-third Amendment was ratified in order to actually let American citizens in our country’s capital have any say in who would be running the nation. For 172 years they were spectators in their own country. Today, millions of Americans are unable to vote for who should be their Commander in Chief simply due to the fact they live in territories rather than states.
There have been five elections in which the winner of the popular vote was defeated. Additionally, small states are disproportionately represented in the Electoral College. Both of these are hailed by supporters of the Electoral College as its benefits. Small states should be represented and the tyranny of the majority should be kept at bay. The problem is that neither of those has really happened. When is the last time you saw a presidential candidate visit Wyoming or Vermont? Small states have not been represented, while swing states receive large amounts of media and campaign attention. Rather than a national election, the Presidential election is an election of Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. This is not how it should be. While power should be decentralized and overall, states should have more powers and influence in the lives of the American people, when we are holding an election for the head of the national executive the entire nation should be involved. The idea that we need a system that checks the tyranny of the majority is absolutely true. The Electoral College just isn’t the way to do it. Checks and balances, a small list of enumerated federal powers, decentralization of power, and state legislatures picking Senators were effective ways to check the majority. We have abandoned many of these ideas as government has grown bigger while our rights have shrunk, and the Electoral College hasn’t been able to stop any of this. The way to change course and keep small states powerful and the tyranny of the majority in check is to stick to checks and balances and decentralization of power, not have a terrible electoral system where someone can become President with only 27% of the popular vote. We should keep powers limited to protect the states. We should keep the amount of positions people get to elect limited to check the tyranny of the majority. But once we’ve decided to allow the people to vote, as we should do when deciding who gets to be the powerful man in the world, we should treat it as any other vote: winning 51% of the vote means winning the election.
The final supposed benefit of the Electoral College was it would protect us from the ignorance of the masses. It did this through the Electors, which are in no way constitutionally bound to vote for who the people of their state picked, although many states have laws requiring them too. But has it at all checked the people’s ignorance? The reality TV star who cheated on his wife with a porn star is President right now. President Wilson (re-segregated the federal government), President Roosevelt (put Japanese people in camps and appointed a former KKK member to the Supreme Court), and President Johnson (helped filibuster civil rights legislation) all were elected without any opposition from Electors. In fact, the only time the Electors have had any significant impact was during the election of 1872 when the Democratic nominee for President, Horace Greeley, died after the popular vote but before the electors cast their votes, causing them to split their votes between four other Democrats. Just like the tyranny of the majority, the ignorance of the majority should not be checked by the way we hold our elections. The way to check it is to limit the power of the federal government and what positions we get to vote for.
With the Electoral College being the disaster it is, many have proposed we move to a popular vote. In this system, whichever candidate receives the most votes becomes the next President. But this cure is worse than the disease. There have been eight elections in which the winner won with a plurality of votes, and this system exasperates this problem. It requires there to always only be two candidates, stifling many viewpoints and competition. The clearest example is with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. Clinton won with an electoral landslide despite winning only 43.01% of the vote. This was because the third-party candidate, Ross Perot split President George H. W. Bush’s base. A Democrat won the election despite the fact that 56.36% of the electorate chose a conservative-leaning candidate. This is a problem that will continue to occur with a popular vote. A different solution is clearly needed.
Ranked Choice Voting
A Ranked Choice Voting System is the best way to elect the President. In this system, rather than picking just one candidate, a voter ranks his or her favorite candidate 1st, the second 2nd, and so on. If when the votes are tallied in the first round, none of the candidates received above 50% of the popular vote, then the candidate in last place is eliminated and the votes for those who voted for the now-eliminated candidate go to their highest ranked, non-eliminated choice. This process continues until one candidate has above 50% of the vote, making them the next President of the United States. President Bush would’ve been able to win in dominant fashion in the second round of the election under this system; giving the American people a President most closely aligned to the wishes of the electorate. That should be the most important goal of any electoral system, and none do it better than ranked choice voting.
While ensuring the majority of the American people actually voted for the next President is the most important goal, there are many other goals that are achieved by Ranked Choice Voting.
The candidates will be less radical. Primaries allow radical bases to select candidates not in line with mainstream America, causing most Americans to choose between the lesser of two evils as seen best by the 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Under this system primaries are weakened and may even become totally irrelevant and eliminated as multiple people from each party would be able to run without destroying any chance of victory as with the elections of 1912 and 1992.
With more candidates being viable the American people will have more options and more opinions will be represented. With votes transferring, the idea of ‘wasting your vote’ will be a thing of the past. All voters will get to vote with their conscience for the candidate most representative of their values without having to pick the least worst option.
The presidential candidates will have to campaign everywhere. Democrats in Texas and Republicans in California will finally have their votes matter and the need to campaign nationwide rather than Florida-wide will be the new path to victory.
Millions of American citizens living in territories such as Puerto Rico will be able to have a say in who their President will be. All Americans will have their votes matter now that we will have a system which ensures citizens do get to vote for President and there is no Elector who can go against the will of the people.
Lastly, this system has the potential to make elections more civil and unifying, something badly needed in this country. Most Americans disapprove of negative campaign ads, but their use is increasing. It is much easier to prove someone else wrong than to prove yourself right. A ranked-choice system creates negative consequences for disparaging your opponent and incentives to be civil; voters aren’t just voting once, they are now ranking candidates, so every detail of a campaign matters. And while not everyone is going to make a candidate their first choice, the candidate will want them to rank him or her second. A voter is not likely to rank a candidate anywhere on their list if the candidate is in a calling the other candidate’s supporters deplorables who are racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, and xenophobic. Candidates will now have to play nice if they hope to stand a chance should the election go to round two.
With an electoral system that has failed us from the beginning, many Americans are turning away from the Electoral College and looking for alternatives. While this is a necessary first step we must be careful not to stumble upon the first alternative and end up with an even worse electoral system. Ranked Choice Voting is by far the most efficient and beneficial system, making it the obvious choice for the Presidential electoral system of the future.
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