Electoral engineering


With the United States in full election swing, former presidential hopeful Al Gore has argued for a change to the voting system. Conall Cahill examines the implications of a change of tune in the Electoral College system

After years of planning, months of campaigns, fewer hours of sleep than you need and time with family missed, your past has been delved into and searched fastidiously with the fine-toothed comb by the press and your opponents. You have read more speeches than you can remember and looked into the eyes of potential voters; promising positive change so often that your head is spinning.

So, when Al Gore, the US Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate in the year 2000 had the dream and opportunity of becoming the most powerful figure on Earth, naturally he wanted to succeed, and according to the popular vote, so did most of his fellow countrymen and women. But he still lost the election. How did that happen? How could there have been such an arguably deceptive outcome in the race for the most important job in the world? Why instead was there a Lance Armstrong-type situation where the winner is the loser? The answer is simple. The system of Electoral College voting.

This system of voting seemed perfectly acceptable in 1787 when Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the Founding Fathers of the US Constitution were drawing up their plans for a new democracy to suit their society. Little did they realise that 213 years later, the same system would be causing havoc while still in place, but in a society far bigger, far more populated and a lot different from 1787.

The Electoral College voting system is one whereby each US state gets a number of votes proportionate to its population. In 2012, California, a state with a population of 37 million people in 2010 gets 55 Electoral College votes. In contrast, Alaska, home of Sarah “I can see Russia from my house” Palin, with a population of roughly 722 thousand will receive just three Electoral College votes. Electors are given the job of casting the votes on behalf of their state in accordance with the real vote count and, on rare occasions, may abstain or even vote against their state’s wishes due to personal opinion. For example in 2000, Washington D.C. Elector Barbara Lett-Simmons pledged to vote for Democrat Al Gore but cast no electoral votes as a protest at what she felt was Washington D.C.’s lack of representation in Congress.

The Electoral College system has a huge impact on the Presidential campaigns, as candidates focus on “swing states”, i.e. states where the race for the E.C. votes on offer will be tight. The New York Times noted that in 2008, one of Barack Obama’s major achievements was securing the votes of Colorado, which had voted Republican in eight of the last nine Presidential elections. In 2012, both Mitt Romney and Obama face challenges in persuading the people of Colorado to vote in their favour. Of course, the most high-profile recent impact that the Electoral College system has had on the US Presidential election is in 2000, when 0.5% more Americans, approximately 544 thousand people, voted for Al Gore over George Bush, but due to the Electoral College system, Bush won the vote by 271 electoral college seats to 266.

While one might assume Gore has changed his opinion of the Electoral College system over the results of that election, he insists that he did not. In the aftermath of the crushing defeat, Gore was in favour of the E.C. system, arguing that “it knits the country together and prevents regional conflicts … It goes back through our history to some legitimate concerns”. Now, however, after “a lot of thought”, he has come to the conclusion that “people are effectively disenfranchised in the Presidential race”, and now feels that it is time for a change to the system.
In 2008, in fact, during the Presidential election, Jesse Jackson Jr., who sits in the House of Representatives, described the Electoral College System as the Founding Fathers’ “unfortunate gift” to us, and reminded his readers of the time when “despite not being allowed to vote, slaves were to be counted as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of Congressional representation and the Electoral College. But like Thomas Jefferson, who ‘trembled for his country’ when he thought of slavery… I worry about the unjust nature of our Electoral College, a legacy institution that should make all of us tremble.”

So, will Gore and his fellow thinkers get their way and see the Electoral College system of voting eventually abolished? If so, what would the new system be? One thing is for sure: in order for people to have true faith in government, voters need to have faith in the system that elected that government. When the system results in the less popular candidate being elected, that automatically reduces the credibility and authority of that person as a governor of the people. Like elections people know have been rigged and where people feel their vote has been undermined, the Electoral College system can leave people with a lingering feeling that their vote is essentially meaningless, and ultimately, that has to change.