Rigged Presidential Elections Threaten U.S. Democracy

donald trump
Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory deeply upset many Americans. The widespread dissatisfaction with his win was so strong that it caused millions of people to take to the streets for unprecedented post-election protests across the country.

Some of the protestors complained that the election was rigged because Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. But U.S. presidents have always been elected by the Electoral College, not by the national popular vote. That doesn’t mean, however, that the system isn’t rigged.

Two of the last three presidents were elected without winning the popular vote. (Both of them were Republicans.) That’s because under the current election system, it doesn’t matter if a presidential candidate wins a state by one vote or a million votes, the winner gets all of that state’s electoral votes. This disenfranchises all of the voters that voted for the opposing candidate.

The Electoral College Was Entangled With Slavery
“If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.” – Mark Twain

The Electoral College has a long history of inequality because its intended purpose was to subvert the principle of one person, one vote. It was created during the Constitutional Convention of 1878 as part of the Three-Fifths Compromise, which declared that slaves should count as three-fifths of a person towards the population totals used to determine the number representatives each state would have in Congress. Southern states wanted this method to help prevent Northern states from outlawing slavery, and it ensured Southern influence over the federal government until the Civil War.

Since then, there have been some significant changes. The 14th Amendment  adopted in 1868, gave blacks full personhood in America. The 19th Amendment, adopted in 1920, gave women the right to vote. And the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 gave Native Americans U.S. citizenship.

Also, a couple of states have implemented a fairer system for allocating their electoral votes. In Nebraska and Maine, instead of the winner getting all of the state’s electoral votes, they are distributed based upon the popular vote winner in each congressional district, and then the winner of the statewide popular vote gets the state’s remaining two electoral votes. (The number of Electoral College electors for each state is equal to the number of U.S. representatives it has based upon its population, plus two more for its two U.S. senators.)

Congressional Districts Are Being Gerrymandered

But even if all of the states implement this more equitable system for allocating electoral votes, federal elections will still be rigged because the boundaries of many congressional districts are being gerrymandered. It’s primarily a product of a nationwide strategy by Republicans to control state legislatures and set the boundaries of local congressional districts to give Republican candidates unfair advantages. Their success is shown by the fact that in 2016 there were 41.3 million registered Democrats, and only 30.4 million registered Republicans, but the Republicans control both houses of Congress.

Arizona voters saw the danger of leaving congressional redistricting in the hands of party politicians when they passed Proposition 106 in 2000. It created the Arizona Redistricting Commission, a politically independent panel charged with creating congressional districts that are fair and competitive. The commission’s achievements can be seen in the fact that four of the state’s nine congressional representatives are Democrats, despite the fact that Arizona’s state government is controlled by Republicans. This ratio reflects the makeup of the state’s registered voters, which in 2016 were 35% Republican and 30% Democrat.

Tyranny Of the Minority

The defenders of the Electoral College like to point out that the Founding Fathers intended for the U.S. to be a republic, where the rights of the minority are protected, not a pure democracy, where the minority have no protections against the will of the majority. They say the Electoral College prevents the “tyranny of the majority.” But things have changed since the Constitution was adopted.  Today most Americans live in urban areas, where most of the nation’s wealth is generated. Cities are becoming more important than the states. But under the current Electoral College system rural Americans have disproportionate influence on presidential elections. It’s created a tyranny of the minority.

The protestors that marched in the streets against Donald Trump certainly had a right to complain, and a lot to complain about. In the long run, however, it will take substantive reforms in the ways Electoral College votes are allocated and congressional districts are drawn to make one person, one vote a reality for U.S. presidential elections.

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