Our Undemocratic Democracy

As a junior in high school, I wrote an en­tire research paper on why the Electoral College was good for the American sys­tem of government. Back then, I believed that the Founding Fathers’ end goal of keeping a demagogue from gaining power in the U.S was a noble one, even if the distrust in democra­cy that also played a role in the creation of the Electoral College was not. After the 2016 elec­tion, I have realized that as noble a goal as keep­ing a demagogue out of power is, the Electoral College as it exists today is clearly not success­ful in accomplishing this goal. Instead of keep­ing a demagogue out of power, it enabled one to attain it without the support of the popular vote. I then wondered: Why was that? How has the Electoral College managed to stray so far from its purpose. What other system might be put in place to remedy the ills present in the cur­rent system? Looking back at the history of the Electoral College is an excellent way of answer­ing those questions.

According to Federalist Paper 68, Alexander Hamilton and other federalists imagined a sys­tem in which electors chosen by party elites would feel free to choose the candidate they thought was best. This system was viewed as elitist and, essentially, undemocratic by those who felt deprived of a voice in government. Under pressure to make the system more demo­cratic, the Electoral College has changed so that the electors for each state are awarded to can­didates based on the popular vote of that state. Currently, 30 states have fines in place to prevent electors from diverging from the popular vote of their states. However, since electors are chosen by party elites, the vestiges of elitism still remain. The way the delegates are chosen for the nation­al conventions that elect the candidates for each major party was reformed in the late 1960s after riots during the Democratic National Convention caused those in charge to make it more demo­cratic and less elitist. The process of choosing electors never went through this reform. This means that the Electoral College as it exists cur­rently is a strange mix of current democratic no­tions and old elitist traditions that lead to very strange results.

The question remains as to how the Electoral College ended up putting a demagogue in pow­er despite him losing the popular vote. The an­swer is that the way the system is currently set up, residents of less populous, more rural states states and swing states have more power than residents of densely populated states and states that are solidly red or solidly blue. Research from the U.S Department of Agriculture has shown that people in rural areas tend to have less formal education than people in urban ar­eas. It was these less educated voters that in­spired the creation of the Electoral College, but it is these less educated voters who also made Trump’s Electoral College victory possible. So, the Electoral College has actually given more power to those with less education, and so it is neither as elitist as the fouding fathers would have wished nor as democratic as most people today would wish.

Although the goal of keeping a demagogue from taking power was noble, the Electoral College as it exists today hasn’t succeeded in accomplishing that goal. It also discourag­es voter turnout in solidly red and blue states, which is harmful to our democracy. Without it providing the one benefit an elitist system might afford, these ends no longer justify their means. What would I suggest to remedy this flawed system? Considering how chaotic a re­liance on the national popular vote might be, I wouldn’t suggest that. Instead, I think more states should follow the proportional allocation of votes that Maine and Nebraska have already put into practice. That way, more people will feel like they have a voice in our democratic republic. Every state would be a swing state of sorts and less people would be discour­aged from voting. Overall, it would be a more beneficial system for everyone, instead of be­ing the strange, contradictory, system it is to­day that has failed at its original purpose. It is strange that we have a system that is attempt­ing to be more democratic, yet still keeps the people’s voice from being heard. According to FactCheck.org, two of the last five elections have resulted in the winner of the popular vote not winning the election. Previously, there were only three elections out of forty-two in which that occurred. Now, in the most recent elec­tion, a demagogue has exposed flaws in the system by winning the Electoral College but not the popular vote. Clearly, this is no longer an anomaly but a serious flaw we must address going forward.

Isabel Torres

Isabel Torres'20 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at itorres@wustl.edu.

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