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The Illusion of the American Election

By: Atmanah Parab

As a kid, I don’t remember thinking much about politics. The founding fathers with their cherry trees and boat rides across freezing rivers seemed more like mythological characters than people to me, their lives, their impacts and their paradigms for existence far separated from the world I lived in today.  I was far more preoccupied with demolishing pancakes and watching fireworks with my family on the 4th of July than to even truly consider my own country. It seemed then that the United States had been around forever, I could not conceive of a world without the structures I was born in. Understandable; I was, after all, a kid. This compounded with the fact that my parents, Indian citizens, had little interest in American politics or desire to express their political will in a country that had not yet become their own. As I learned and grew, things started to change. 

In middle school, I was awestruck to learn about the birth of civilization and the emergence of societal structure as we know it. I learned about the birth of democracy in Greece where pebbles and urns were the first ballots and ballot boxes. I learned about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and wondered if I would know when? the political and social structures around me were crumbling, if I would live to see the death of an empire. At this point, I saw American politics as yet something far different than I do now. Politics were the structures of government, neat checks and balances, flow charts that showed a bill becoming a law. Neat demarcations with none of the grey areas, chaos or stakes that politics have in real life. I was aware that there were Democrats and Republicans. I watched the presidential and vice presidential debates, rooting for Obama with a full heart because I still believed in the seat of the presidency and the “inherent good” of the Democrats and American government in general. 

 But as I’ve come to learn through high school debate, many political science courses and existing as a human being in the United States, this sh*t is kind of messed up.

 Why do politicians seem to value winning the electoral game over making a true positive impact on the lives of their constituents? Why do we not have universal healthcare, a commitment to education or science and the blood of the Global South on our hands? And most currently relevant, why on earth are our elections the way they are? Why are we always stuck choosing between the lesser of two evils and two parties only? Why does the electoral college still exist?

You see, now that I’m 20, the founding fathers have suffered a mighty fall from the mythological. I now recognize them as the creators of a purposefully restrictive and exclusive political structure. As much as living in the United States in 2020 is vastly different than in the late 18th century, unfortunately, the decisions taken then based on the context of life then are still applied to the America that I live in leading to many of the problems that plague American electoral politics. The way that parties and candidates function within the American political sphere is neither beneficial to their constituents or democracy at large, however, the kicker is that this behavior is necessitated by the structure of the American electoralism. 

The first and often overlooked component of the maelstrom of misrepresentation we find ourselves in is the First Past the Post electoral system. This is something so inherent to the process of American electoralism that when I first learned that there were alternatives, my mind was blown. First past the post is a form of plurality voting where between all options in an electoral race, the candidate that accrues a majority of the vote wins the election regardless of which percentage of the vote was actually won. For example, if three candidates A, B and C are running for mayor and A wins 35% of the vote and thus the seat, B and Cs vote shares account for 65% percent of the vote. Meaning that the elected candidate was only representative of 35% of the electorate. Under FPTP, candidate A winning is fair and obvious as the single candidate with the most votes but this is not a highly representative system. Alternative electoral systems either allow for ranked voting, ensuring that the votes of citizens are not wasted beyond their first preference or have an increased emphasis on proportionality, and take into consideration vote shares. The reason this matters is because the majority of large scale American elections, supposedly built on the ideal of democracy and representation, occur through first past the post. Even if we take aside the electoral college (which simply compounds these issues) there is a fatal and obvious failure at achieving true democratic representation even simply on the level of the winner-take-all mechanism of first past the post. 

Unfortunately for us and proponents of true representation, the effects of the electoral college cannot be overlooked. Probably the most maligned feature of our current electoral system, is the electoral college. Pew Research Center polls consistently show that the majority of Americans would like to abolish the electoral college and yet it exists. We are taught that the electoral college was a compromise made to assure the voices of less populated states would not be silenced by areas of high population concentration. There is a barely veiled vested interest in reducing the potency of the public vote in the electoral college, especially given that at the time it was put into action, less than 6% of the population fit the requirements to vote. In modern day America where populations are increasingly concentrated in smaller geographical areas in the form of metropolitan areas and spread thin across vast swathes of land, the electoral college results in the votes of some being worth far more than others. In fact, a vote in Wisconsin is worth sixty-six Californian votes. However, because of the fact that the Electoral College is a part of the Constitution and amending it to a more representative form of election such as a national popular vote or ranked choice voting would result in a complete transformation of power in the political sphere, there is a hesitance for those in power to allow such a change. The electoral college creates an inherent imbalance in the value of regions and it shows in the attention that candidates give to key issues and the lack of care dedicated towards uniquely urban issues. This matters because regardless of how vote potency is distributed, a majority of Americans are facing a dilution of their power as citizens and voters. Adding to this, the electors for a given state are supposed to all vote for the candidate elected by popular vote in their state even if the margin that the candidate wins by is extremely slim and all electoral votes for a state going to said candidate is a gross misrepresentation of citizen will. In addition to this, people of color tend to stay in urban and metropolitan areas adding to the generalized institutional racism inherent in American society. 

This combination of electoral systems leads to a huge and forceful oversimplification of the country’s policy preference. It is also the reason why voting third party is a risk, because often third parties stray from mainstream/centrist politics and advocate for true change, any votes from third parties are likely to have the electoral effect of simply detracting from the vote share of one of the two main parties rather than winning any elections resulting in what political science scholars call a ‘wasted vote’. This isn’t fair to the citizens of the United States or the political process because it effectively shuts down anything outside of the main two parties and devalues progress simply for the maintenance of power and electoral control. While all our votes do matter, we have to get real and wonder how much they actually matter and whether it is fair that things are the way they are.