The Electoral College Is Stupid (and So Is the Senate)
Why do these outdated institutions still exist?
I was talking with a friend recently about the purpose of the Electoral College. She was in favor of the College; I am not.
I argued that no other free country in the world elects its leaders using an Elector system. It’s a popular vote across the board; one person, one vote. Equal ground for every voter, and every vote counts.
My friend argued that without the Electoral College, the votes and voices of the states with smaller populations, in the heartlands of America, would never be heard. “Look at the map,” she said. “Where do you see the majority of American residents?” I replied, “Where the biggest cities are, the metro areas.” (Incidentally, a remarkable amount of these — by far the majority — are located along our two coastlines.) She replied that without the Electoral College, the smaller states and their Republican way of life would no longer matter, because the big cities are predominantly Democratic strongholds.
To which I replied, “So?”
California has the most residents of any state in America, boasting almost 50 million citizens. The state with the fewest number of residents is not Rhode Island as you might assume, but Wyoming, with a little less than 600,000. My argument was that the Electoral College assigns too much importance to states with fewer residents, giving those states an unfair advantage. It shouldn’t matter if the big cities have more Democrats in them, anymore than it matters that the midwest and deep south are predominantly Republican.
A popular vote would include them all, equally.
And yet. Instead of giving every vote an equal voice, we have a system that gives less populous states more importance than they have the right to — because of lines drawn on a map two-ish centuries ago. Those state lines may not be arbitrary, but they also shouldn’t hold more power than their populations entitle them to.
It’s the same argument I have against the Senate. Take a big step back and look at the purpose of our government’s Legislative branch. The House of Representatives, which provides representation based on population, has the right idea. It’s not a perfect system; some Representatives have more individual voters/citizens assigned to them than others. But it’s pretty much what true government representation should look like.
The Senate, like the Electoral Collage, gives power to groups of people based on nothing but those same lines drawn on a map. I hear you, legislators and voters: there are other issues to consider, such as the individual and unique sovereignty of every state, the industries and geographical makeup, etc.
But if we’re looking through the lens of that bigger picture, the Senate is an unfair representation of the people. Because just like the Electoral College, it gives more power to one group of people than they deserve. Where it diverges from the Electoral College, which at least assigns a number of Electors (more or less) based on population, the Senate equals the playing ground regardless of population.
The founding fathers had a much harder task than you’d imagine, getting the early states on board with the idea of a unified nation. At that time, the states were seen as even more sovereign entities than we think of them today. Each one established itself early on with its own laws, and saw itself as something resembling a small country. Big compromises were required, because each state wanted to have equal power in the federal governing body.
Thus, the Legislative branch was established with two houses — one based on popular representation, the other based on state representation. It’s an outdated idea, because no one sees individual states the same way today as they did two-and-a-half centuries ago.
It’s a common, largely unspoken rule in Washington that Senators have more power than Congressmen and women. It’s not a misplaced belief. There are only 100 Senators; there are 435 members of Congress. (Increasing its overall fairness, the number of citizens that any given House member represents can change from election to election, to accommodate changes in population and location.)
What’s more, Senators are elected for a staggering 6-year term —more than even than the President gets— while House members must be reelected every two years. And there are no term limits on either, so any of them could end up serving for dozens of years, while the President gets no more than a very reasonable eight.
But back to the matter at hand. Senators have an incredibly unfair advantage in that their representation has nothing to do with population. It’s determined only by how the land mass of the United States is divvied up. Census counts are irrelevant in the Senate, as are geographical sizes. Alaska by far has the largest landmass, at 663,000 square miles. (The next biggest, by contrast, is Texas, which is about a third of Alaska’s size.) The smallest, as any schoolchild knows, is Rhode Island. It takes up a teeny tiny 1,000 square miles.
(Fun fact: You could fit 425 Rhode Islands in Alaska!)
But both states, like all the others, have two Senators. How is this fair? Why do smaller states get such a mind-boggling advantage over bigger ones? “Well, regardless of size, they’re both states in the USA.”
Again I say, “So?” Big whoop!
The Senate was founded as a dignified counterpoint to “the People’s House” (the House of Representatives), where gentlemen of intelligence and stature would make decisions in the best interests of the country without the interference of a population that might be unaware of the bigger picture.
If that was its original purpose, it outlived its usefulness a long time ago. Of the two arms of America’s Legislative branch, it’s transformed from a society of refined patriots into the house more likely to act in its own self-interests and profit off of special interest groups. This isn’t a blanket rule, but Senators are typically very wealthy and always, without fail, tow the party line. It’s arguably the most corrupt arm of the government.
The Electoral College was meant to serve a similar purpose. It was a way of allowing the people to have their say, but if they were uninformed on major issues, Electors were an insurance policy of individuals who could vote in their constituents best interests, whether they knew what those interests were or not.
The College’s formation becomes a lot more audacious when you factor in the South’s motivations for building it. Both North and South wanted the Electoral College for the same reason. But the South was determined to have the greater amount of Electors.
Enter the infamous “3/5ths Compromise,” in which the South argued that its slave population — which was far bigger than the North’s practically nonexistent slave count; in many Southern areas slaves even outnumbered their white masters — should count toward its Electorates. Never mind that slaves weren’t recognized as actual people, or members of society, and they certainly weren’t allowed to vote. The compromise was approved, allowing the South to count every slave as 3/5ths of a person. It was a move that gave the South a huge advantage, and cast a dark shadow over the Electoral College’s origins.
Today, both institutions of our government have a level of power that’s unquestionably lopsided. The College gives states with minuscule populations a disproportionately bigger voice in choosing our nation’s new leaders than the tenets of democracy suggest. By the same token, the Senate’s power is ludicrously unequal, since its representatives are dictated by neither population nor landmass.
It’s a needlessly complex system of electing and governing a nation. The United States has evolved into a place that puts the ideal of equality on a pedestal that we all strive for. (Well, most of us.)
Therefore, the purposes of both institutions are no longer valid.