Shortly before Christmas 2019, the NBC show Saturday Night Live (SNL) released a sketch that shows three families on different parts of the political spectrum having tough discussions about the presidential election. The punch line, delivered after five minutes of agonizing discussion over political preferences? Their votes don’t matter. All the hope and careful consideration was for naught. “It all comes down to a thousand people in Wisconsin,” whose votes will de facto decide the president for the other 299,999,000-odd Americans.
Though the sketch itself is clearly a joke, there is an unfortunate grain of truth to it, and the underlying situation simply isn’t fair. Compared to their fellow citizens in swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or Ohio, the millions of Republicans living in California and Democrats living in Kentucky, have a trivial impact on the election. Even if you live in one of those privileged swing states, it should concern you that our democratic system is only representing the interests of a segment of the electorate — whether or not you believe that was the original intention of the Framers. The states with the most power in the electoral college tend to be whiter and more rural compared to the rest of the country, among other differences, meaning that the president will not be representative of the desires of all citizens, but only a portion.
This could, of course, be solved with a constitutional amendment abolishing the electoral college in favor of a national popular vote. But barring a change in control of Congress and the state legislatures, which are overwhelmingly Republican and opposed to changing the Constitution, the amendment is dead on arrival. After all, both of the previous Republican presidents have won their first terms by losing the popular vote but winning in a few select states.
And besides, the Presidency is not the only election which merits reform due to unequal representation. Voters are becoming simultaneously more polarized — supporting only one party and not a mix — and moredissatisfied with those parties, meaning that they feel they aren’t being represented properly. It seems like the underlying electoral system is under stress. Both problems could be solved by modifying how elections are run, without ever touching the Constitution or running the gauntlet of the amendment process. In fact, the Constitution’s Article II, Section 1 explicitly allows states to govern election policy. Regarding the Presidential election, the National Popular Vote Compact would ensure the President is chosen by popular vote, while states can decide to change to a more representative voting system for internal elections.
National Popular Vote Compact
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVC) amends state constitutions such that states that pass it must assign their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote. However, it only comes into effect once states controlling more than half of the electoral college’s votes have signed on. Thus, once a winning coalition of states have passed the compact, the Electoral College will de facto cease to exist: everyone’s vote will actually count as equal.
It bears mention that the NPVC may not be Constitutional because it could be interpreted as taking power away from other states, which is forbidden in the Constitution. The question alone invites a challenge in the Supreme Court. But it’s worth a shot if it means ending unfair elections. And if we can get people behind the NPVC, it can build competency and interest in using other methods to abolish the Electoral College.
Even if the NPVC is not the ultimate end to vote distortion in the presidential race, it can be a focal point to mobilize for change in our voting system.
Use Single Transferable Vote
At the state level, we should switch from a “First Past the Post” voting system to a “Single Transferable Vote” (STV) system. “First past the post” (FPTP) refers to a voting system in which the candidate who gets the greatest number of votes wins. It’s an old and honest mistake to think this is always fair. FPTP
Consider an election on what to eat for dessert: let’s assume 66 Republicans and 34 Democrats live in a district. If it’s simply a contest between Republican and Democrat, it’s an easy win for the former. But if the contest is between two Republican candidates, then their vote is split: 33 people will vote for Republican #1, 33 for Republican #2, and 34 for the Democrat. Thus, even though 66 people would have voted for either Republican over the Democrat, Democrats won that district with fewer supporters. In real life the numbers are messier, yet the principle holds: a more popular position split among two candidates will lose to a single, less popular candidate.
This is why the U.S. only has two major parties: not because all smaller competitors are incompetent or because the two parties represent every American’s political views, but because the math of the first past the post election system demands it.
Instead of first past the post, we should adopt Single Transferable Vote (sometimes also called Ranked-Choice Voting). STV is a simple solution that asks voters to rank the candidates they like. If no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is “removed” from the ballot and any votes for that candidate instead go to that voter’s second-choice candidate. This process repeats until any candidate has gotten at least 50% of the vote.
Both of these fixes could be implemented at the state level, which is more receptive to individual voices. The voting system itself, or the means of choosing candidates, causes voters to feel ignored. There are so many viable alternative voting systems engineered since democracy became the norm. We shouldn’t still be using one devised millennia ago when fairer, more representative options are on the table. No candidate will ever be perfect, and the candidate you or I prefer will not always win, but we should demand a more perfect means of choosing among the candidates. Vote for down-ballot candidates that support improvements to the voting system, so you can vote for a candidate you like even better in the future.