When I cast my ballot by mail later this year, it is extremely unlikely that it will influence the results of the election. I live in Illinois, a Democratic stronghold. No matter which candidate I vote for, Hillary Clinton will almost certainly win the state’s 20 electoral college votes. Based on current polling, FiveThirtyEight predicts that Clinton has a 94.8 percent chance of winning the state. The New York Times’ Upshot model forecasts that she has a 98 percent chance of victory. The Princeton Election Consortium model has Clinton with a greater than 95 percent chance to win Illinois. The PredictWise model, based on online betting markets, gives her a 100 percent chance of victory in the state. Suffice it to say, it seems all but certain that Clinton will win, no matter how I decide to vote.
However, this is not the case for the inhabitants of other states. Residents of battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio will have a much larger impact on the results of the election when they vote on November 8 than the voters who live in Democratic and Republican strongholds. FiveThirtyEight calculates a “tipping point chance,” which determines the relative likelihood that a given state will swing the election towards one candidate or the other, as well as a “voter power index,” which determines the relative likelihood that an individual voter in a state will influence the overall Electoral College winner.
Although the exact probabilities will fluctuate based on polling changes, the overarching lesson from these two measures is that battleground states have a larger impact on determining the President than partisan strongholds, and that voters in smaller states have more influence than voters in large states. Illinois happens to be both relatively large and securely Democratic. Consequently, my vote will have essentially no impact on which candidate will become the next president.
American presidential elections are hardly the democratic processes they are widely considered to be. We in America believe that all elections should be democratic and reflect the will of the people. Our elections are nominally democratic, in the sense that every citizen gets to cast a vote for the president. However, the Electoral College has a distortionary impact on our voting system. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Voter power index, a voter in New Hampshire or Nevada is about 200-250 times as likely to determine the Electoral College winner as I, a voter in Illinois, am. This hardly reflects the democratic ideal of our politics.
In fact, the Electoral College was intentionally designed to be this way. The Framers of the Constitution were afraid of having too much democracy. The politics of the day upheld a republican ideal that espoused the existence of a common good and rulers selflessly devoted to public service. Over time, however, our politics have changed. The republican ideal of the Founding period was gradually supplanted by a democratic ideal. The United States self-identifies as a democracy and works to spread democratic institutions around the world. Yet our own institutions have not changed to reflect the transformation of our values. We in the United States arguably regard democracy as superior to all other values, but one of our most important political institutions fails to reflect this value.
One possible change that would better reflect our democratic principles would be to adopt the popular vote system to elect our president. It has the virtue of being extremely simple and easy to understand: whomever wins the most votes wins the election. Under this system, we would avoid situations like the 2000 presidential election, when George W. Bush won the presidency even though he did not win the largest share of the popular vote.
There are significant obstacles to implementing a popular vote system. The Electoral College is enshrined in the Constitution, and any modification to that arrangement would require an amendment. Given the highly polarized and adversarial nature of our current political situation, it would be hard to imagine any proposed amendments meeting the strict requirements laid out in Article V.
Although the amendment process may seem to be an insurmountable obstacle, it may not be the only path. The National Popular Vote interstate compact is an initiative that circumvents the amendment process by working within the Electoral College system. It is an agreement between states to award all of their electoral votes to the candidate that wins the national popular vote. The agreement will only take effect when enough states have passed the legislation so the participating states have at least 270 electoral votes, enough to ensure that they will always select the winner by voting in a bloc. Currently, eleven states with 165 electoral votes have enacted the legislation. Although this plan does not follow the spirit of the law, it is a pragmatic solution that would align America’s political institutions with its deeply held democratic ethos.