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How the Electoral College Works: Hillary Won the Election, but Lost the Presidency

How the Electoral College Works: Hillary Won the Election, but Lost the Presidency

electoral college

How did Hillary Clinton, one of the most controversial, yet most objectively qualified presidential candidates, lose to Donald Trump, one of the most brash and openly bigoted presidential candidates in American history? We can point our fingers at multiple things: the legitimization of hatred, rampant racism and misogyny, or the incompetency and complacency of the Democratic National Committee, the overwhelming fear of neglect in rural white American and the re-emergence of the “Silent Majority,” the general corruption of both candidates, low voter turnout—the list continues. Many of these reasons are unique to this election—but one of the greatest and most bewildering of them all dates back to America’s Founding Fathers: the Electoral College.

The Constitution established the Electoral College to to elect our president and vice president. Each state, plus the District of Columbia, is given the same number of “electors” in the College as their combined number of Representatives and Senators (for example, Wisconsin has two Senators and eight Representatives, giving it a total of 10 electors). These electors then convene after the general election to cast their votes, ultimately deciding who becomes our president. So, when we cast our ballot, we are not voting directly for our candidates. Instead, our votes are akin to cues for each state to decide who they will back when the Electoral College convenes after the post-election.

The initial intent of the system was two-fold: 1. Protect the country from making uninformed choices — and 2. Perpetuate slavery by empowering the South more than it would under a direct democracy.

So, when we cast our ballot, we are not voting directly for our candidates. 

Which leaves us to wonder in the modern era, when we are relatively more informed and have abolished slavery, what exactly is the power of our vote? Despite the hype, is the popular vote actually useless?

Well, not exactly. Yes, there are some egregious problems with voter equity—small states, for example, are given more voting power per capita while voters in larger states as well as third party voters and voters states that historically vote red or blue are, to some extent, disenfranchised or ignored by candidates. Campaigning efforts are streamlined, focusing almost solely on larger swing states.

Yet the Electoral College does have some protective measures: 29 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have “faithless elector” laws, requiring electors to vote for whom they have already pledged their vote. 10 states, as well as Washington D.C., have signed an agreement called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would come into effect when all states have signed on and requires electors to vote in favor of whichever candidate won the popular vote in their respective state.

So at least there are punishments for disregarding the popular vote. But what happened this past Tuesday—and four other times in U.S. history—was not a problem with individual electors opposing the popular vote, or any of the other criticisms mentioned above. The problem lay in the Electoral College and the indirect democracy as an entire system.

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The problem lay in the Electoral College and the indirect democracy as an entire system.

Hillary Clinton, like Al Gore in 2000, narrowly won the national popular vote, but she didn’t win in more individual states than Trump. In a largely winner-take-all system (with the exceptions of Nebraska and Maine, who pledge electoral votes proportionately), this translates to a large disparity between the final electoral vote count and the popular vote.

That said, it is not entirely over just yet. The Electoral College will convene on Dec. 19 to vote. If mass protests by anti-Trump groups as well as hate crimes by Trump supporters and groups like the KKK continue to surge, there is still the possibility that the electors will switch their votes from their original pledges. It’s highly unlikely that this will occur and would not alter the fact that the Republicans are the majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives—but a girl can dream, or at least sign a petition, right?

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  • The electoral college allows for all regions of the country to be heard and have their needs addressed, so policy won’t be purely dictated by urban areas. Also, the formation of the electoral college had nothing to do with “perpetuating slavery”. The Founders wouldn’t base such an incredibly crucial aspect of the political system on one petty issue. It was, as I said, to give people from all walks of life in America a voice, and not just population centers where people are packed tightly into one place. That’s just not how a Republic works.

    And a funny little historical note—the South during the post-revolution era probably would’ve been perfectly happy with direct democracy, and perhaps even giving limited suffrage to slaves, because slavers could essentially purchase unwilling captive voters and then use them to sway elections. Something similar gave us the notorious three-fifths compromise. States are allotted House representatives based on their population size; the Southern states wanted slaves to be counted as technical “citizens” along with the rest of the population, because that would maximize the slave states’ numbers of representatives. The other states complained that this gave slave-importing states an unfair advantage, because they could increase their populations artificially through chattel slavery. The solution, of course, was a compromise—for purposes of political representation, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person. Can you imagine how powerful the south might’ve been in the event of popular democracy instead of a representative republic? Popular democracy could’ve enshrined slavery, not ended it.

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