As a reminder: Republicans have not elected a first-time president with a popular mandate since before I could vote, and I’m a midlife. That’s a crisis, and ending it should be the top priority for 2021.
The electoral college, we are told in 11th grade US history, insures that states with small populations have a role to play in the election. If their residents were equal in terms of the value of their vote to residents of densely populated states, candidates would only campaign in states with large populations. If every vote carries equal weight, why fly to Montana to speak to a small crowd when you can speak to a large crowd in California? The entire state of Virginia has the population of New York City, so why go there when you could go to NYC? The electoral college applies pressure to candidates to not just visit Iowa and Mississippi and New Mexico but also to care about the concerns of these states and of rural America. The idea is that it gives them motivation to get out of their elite, coastal bubbles and get to know the good country people of the nation. This is the defense of the Electoral College that teachers try to raise so that you can have some kind of debate in your Civics class. But the result isn’t that rural voters matter; it’s that a very few rural voters matter.
California is the sixth largest economy in the world, but it matters, in terms of determining the result of an election, less than Pennsyltucky. Unemployed coal miners in western PA and eastern Ohio end up making the decision, against the will of the people, about our next president. The suburbs around Pittsburgh matter, but the rural people of California don’t.
Should disgruntled coal miners matter? Yes, very much. I spend a lot of time in these regions, having gone to college in central Pennsylvania, and I return regularly to visit friends and family in the western region of the state. My grandparents live in Ohio, having come to manufacturing hubs from rural Kentucky in the midcentury. I see in my own family tree how these people and places matter.
Should they get to matter more than everyone else? No, of course not, and you knew that since kindergarten. And, to be frank, in terms of their contributions to the economy, they matter less. They are, generally speaking, drains, not contributors. Now, to be clear, I don’t think that means that we shouldn’t care about those people or places, and I don’t measure a person’s worth or a region’s value by its economic output. But if you are a person who does (and many conservatives are), then the many welfare states—the ones that take more than they give, often because of reckless tax slashing at the state level (Kansas!)—need to have their electoral worth ratcheted back.
The map above shows the electoral votes allocated to each state. Kansas, where I live, has 6. Nearby California has 55, or 10.9 times more electoral votes than us, though California’s population is 13.2 times larger. Guess where the white people live? My vote counts more in Kansas than in California.
But this unfair system is not by accident. We’ve had a long time to change our electoral system, and we’ve chosen this one. Changing it is hard, of course, because it would have to be changed by the party in power—the party that benefited from that system. That argument is easier to make when the party in the White House was supported by the popular vote. It’s more important to make—but harder to win—when the party in the White House was not the winner of the popular vote, as has now happened four times in our history. After all, the reason Trump is heading to the White House is because the system was rigged in his favor. He’s not going to say it’s an illegitimate system now. (Though Trump screamed a lot about the electoral college in 2012, when he erroneously thought that Romney had won the popular vote but lost the electoral college.)
Why do we have this system? It’s not for love of rural people. If you are a white unemployed coal miner in West Virginia, you might be feeling a bit disconnected from Washington D.C. And you are. No, they don’t care about you. You know that, so don’t believe that the electoral system was designed to care about you, either. It wasn’t.
The system, like all our systems have historically been, is designed to serve elites—which means men, the wealthy, and white people. To the extent that these people live in rural areas, they matter. Like, for example, if you owned a plantation worked by enslaved Black people in the late 1700s.
The short version is this: The founding elites didn’t mean for democracy to include, you know, everyone. Women had voted in New Jersey prior to the formation of the nation, but that wasn’t going to fly in the new United States on a larger scale. No votes for women. Or poor people. Or non-white people. And the nation actually had a lot of each of these. States like South Carolina were overwhelming populated by people of African descent. So we came up with a system of who could vote: property owning white men. Even this, though, didn’t fully neutralize the threat of the election of people who might not suit powerful interests. So we got the electoral college, not direct democracy, and, via the Great Compromise, a two-chamber Congress, one with membership proportional to state’s population (the House of Representatives) and one with two members per state (the Senate). The result was conflict from the Constitution through the Civil War as the more populous North held sway in the House but the slave-holding South was able to block abolition efforts in the Senate. (Remember this when you complain about gridlock today, okay?)
When we were hammering out the Great Compromise, the South wanted it both ways: to have all the enslaved people count for purposes of allocating representation in government but, of course, not to count as humans in any other way—and certainly not in the voting booth. So we began a system that treated Black people as 3/5 a person for purposes of Congress and as animals that could be bought and sold for purposes of slavery. The South got exactly what it wanted—disproportionate representation of white interests in Congress. Beyond the Congress, the electoral college was set up specifically so that the South, with a smaller population of whites than the North, would still have influence on the presidency—and thus also be able to elect pro-slavery candidates who, if only the popular vote mattered, would not be able to get into office.
We’ve gotten rid of the law that says that people of color don’t count equally to whites, but we haven’t gotten rid of the practice that makes it so that nonwhite votes generally count less. By allowing rural voters’ votes to count more than the votes of highly populated states, we give white voters—the people who disproportionately live in those rural areas—more sway.
In other words, we don’t live with the history of a racist electoral college. We live with the reality, right now, of an electoral system that continues to be racist.
But this was the whole point—the Constitution, unlike our wild Declaration of Independence–is deliberately conservative. The structure of our government is set to protect the status quo, which is no surprise because it was drafted by people who benefited from the status quo. They told us it was for our own good—that it protects us from quick and impulsive changes. But we can see in the 2016 election that it really protects the already-powerful. Otherwise, how could the majority of voters, including supermajorities of the most vulnerable—people of color, religious minorities, LGBT people, poor people—have voted one way but see a different result?
Pollsters like to say that democracy is all about demography, but that suggests that if we just get enough people out to vote, then the people’s will will be heard and respected. Of course, this is not true. It’s power, not demographics, that really matter. Our system insures it. Why did Clinton lose? Because Donald Trump was right: the system is rigged.