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 were far separated from the world I lived in. 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 knew. Understandable; I was, after all, a kid. In addition to this, my parents, Indian citizens, had little interest in American politics or any 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 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 if and when the political and social structures around me were crumbling or whether I would live to see the death of an empire. At this point, I still saw American politics as something far different than I do now. Politics to me was: the structures of government, neat checks and balances, and flow charts that showed a bill becoming a law. None of the grey areas, chaos, or high stakes that politics can have in real life. I was aware that there were two parties. I watched the presidential and vice-presidential debates, rooting for Obama wholeheartedly because I believed in the presidency and the “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 truly 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, the decisions made based on the context of life then are still applied to the America that I live in now. This leads 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 American electoralism.
The first and often overlooked component of the maelstrom of misrepresentation we find ourselves in is the First Past the Post (FPTP) 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. FPTP is a form of plurality voting where the candidate that accrues a majority of the vote wins the election regardless of which percentage of the vote was 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. However, B and Cs vote shares account for 65% percent of the vote. Meaning that the elected candidate was only truly 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 FPTP. 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 FPTP.
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 nation’s population fit the requirements to vote. In modern-day America where the population is increasingly concentrated in either smaller geographical areas (metropolitan areas) or spread thin across vast swathes of land, the electoral college results in the votes of some being worth far more than others. A vote in Wisconsin is worth sixty-six Californian votes.
However, because 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. While people may vote, it is land that speaks. The electoral college creates an inherent imbalance in the value of different 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 voting potency is distributed, a majority of Americans are facing a dilution of their power as citizens and voters. The electors for a given state are obligated to vote for the candidate elected by popular vote in their state even if the margin that the candidate wins by is extremely slim. All electoral votes for a state going to a single candidate winning by a slim margin is a gross misrepresentation of the 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. The victories won through this electoral system are only perpetuated by office-holders who use their authority to gerrymander and disenfranchise.
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 for the third party is a risk. Often third parties stray from mainstream/centrist politics and advocate for “radical” change which puts off a fair chunk of American voters. Any votes for third party candidates are likely to have the electoral effect of simply detracting from the vote share of one of the two main candidates 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 matter and whether it is fair that things are the way they are.