The Electoral College puzzle

Updated: 02 November, 2020 07:20 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

A winner-takes-all system that was developed to take into account America's slave population when they did not have voting rights will be on test again in Election 2020 amid growing calls to abolish it

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, right, and former President Barack Obama greet each other at a rally at Northwestern High School in Michigan. Pic/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, right, and former President Barack Obama greet each other at a rally at Northwestern High School in Michigan. Pic/AP

Ajaz AshrafDemocratic nominee Joe Biden will likely poll a higher percentage of the national popular vote than incumbent Republican President Donald Trump in the American elections tomorrow. But this will still not guarantee that Biden would replace Trump as the next president, largely because of the puzzle called the Electoral College.

When Americans vote tomorrow, they will do so to choose a slate of electors to represent their will in the Electoral College. Each State sends as many electors to the Electoral College as it does to the House of Representatives, where representation is on the basis of population, plus the two members each has in the Senate. With the District of Columbia assigned three electors, the Electoral College has 538 electors. Its members will meet on December 14 to choose the President.

Their choice would be a formality because the world will know beforehand the number of electors Trump and Biden will have in the Electoral College. The calculation involved is extraordinarily simple – the winner in each State, even with a margin of one vote, gets all its electors. Only Nebraska and Maine are exceptions. So, if Trump were to poll more votes than Biden in, say, Florida, the State's 29 electors will all be Republican.

In this "winner-takes-all" system, it does not count for the candidate to get a plurality of votes nationally. These votes have to be distributed in such a way that he or she should win as many States as to give him or her at least 270 electors, the majority required in the Electoral College.

Assume Biden can poll 15 per cent more votes than Trump in California, which has 55 electors. Biden will get them all. Now, suppose Biden wins with a whopping 40 per cent margin in California. His national vote kitty will balloon, but he still gets only 55 electors. Biden would be happy to win California by just a vote if he could wrest Pennsylvania, with its 20 electors, from Trump. In this scenario, Biden's national vote kitty would dip, but he gains 20 electors, to add to the 55 he has in California.

The winner in the national popular vote is a moral victor. He or she becomes the President only by bagging 270 or more votes in the Electoral College. Before Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Al Gore in 2000, there were three other instances – in 1824, 1876 and 1888 – when the moral victor could not become the President. Of these, the 1876 election proved the most disastrous. Then Samuel J Tilden had secured 3 per cent more votes than Rutherford Hayes, who, however, became the President. His tenure deepened the Black-White chasm for decades, much as Trump's victory, even after polling nearly three million votes less than Clinton in 2016, has polarised America today.

Clinton's defeat escalated the demand for the abolition of the Electoral College, which was conceived more than two centuries ago to balance the North and the South's interests. Both had more or less the same population, but an estimated 93 per cent of Black slaves lived in the South, constituting roughly one-third of its population. Blacks did not have voting rights.

During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, there was a debate whether to count slaves in a State's population, on the basis of which its quantum of representation in the House was to be determined. Count the slaves, the South insisted. Thus was worked out the "three-fifth compromise" formula – five slaves were to be counted as three free people for determining a State's population.

This compromise bumped up the South's population – and its representation in the House. It no longer made sense for the South to agree to a direct presidential election, with one person having one vote, as its Black population could not have voted. The Convention, therefore, opted to indirectly elect the President through the Electoral College, which replicated the parity already established between regions in the House. The Electoral College does indeed have a racist origin.

Although Blacks now have voting rights, the Electoral College still continues. It is argued that a direct presidential election will undermine federalism, as sparsely populated States will be neglected. Will a presidential candidate bother about Wyoming, with 580,000 people, over California's 39.51 million?

However, John Koza, the lead author of Every Vote Equal, pointed to the Atlantic Monthly that out of nearly 1,000 presidential campaign events held between 2008 and 2016, only 52 events were organised in 13 States having just three or four Electoral College votes. Of these 52 events, 46 were in New Hampshire. Why? Because New Hampshire is a swing State. Solidly Republican or Democratic States tend to get ignored.

Unless Trump beats Biden in the national popular vote to become the President, the call for abolishing the Electoral College would become louder. Or pressure could mount for more States to join the National Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement among 15 States and the District of Columbia to award all their Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The compact accounts for 196 electoral votes, far short of the mark of 270 votes for it to acquire legal force.

The writer is a senior journalist

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First Published: 02 November, 2020 06:12 IST

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