On the Issues: Electoral politics

Interview by Keely Savoie

Adam Hilton, visiting instructor in politics at Mount Holyoke College, and an expert in electoral history and practice, offered his insights into the swiftly approaching presidential election and to explain the schism between the electoral college and the popular vote.

The electoral system is highly opaque to many people—yet it has the power to override the popular vote. Can you explain how that has come to be?

The electoral college was originally designed to insulate the president from popular democratic decision-making. The whole system is needlessly complicated, and operates in a way now that it was not designed to do. It’s kind of a strange layering of one compromise and development on top of another. One of my students astutely described it as a “Frankensystem.”

After the Constitution was adopted, the system was democratized when states started linking the choice that the electors made to the popular vote in that state.

The system was meant to protect small states because they have a proportionately higher number of electors, which is based on the total number of representatives and senators in each state. But then states began making it a winner-take-all contest to increase the size of the prize and draw the attention to the state. Once that happened, the large states could offer the biggest electoral prizes. So the electoral college  no longer actually protects small states at all. However, the smaller states maintain a disproportionate number of electors, which gives them a bigger piece of the overall pie than their portion of the population.

We popularly think of elections as an expression of the will of the people. Do you have concerns about this one reflecting that accurately?

The largest and most important issue is voter access.

The US has historically had a high rate of voter abstentionism, even in presidential elections, which average between 50 and 60 percent for the last 50 years. Beyond abstentionism, voter suppression has always been a problem.

In recent decades, it has turned into a kind of political strategy. Rather than appealing to their bases, parties try to limit access to the ballot for populations that don’t tend to vote favorably for them.

This isn’t a very forward-thinking strategy on their part. If you look at the demographic trends, it becomes clear that Latinos and of color in general, women, and younger voters will make up a greater and greater part of the electorate in coming years. This will give them a great deal of power, especially if they were to deliver their votes as a bloc to one party or another.

How can we make our elections more reflective of the will of the people?

Regardless of the outcome of this election, people should work through their state legislatures and make them not winner-take-all, like Maine and Nebraska. That way you could have split outcomes and the electoral map would better reflect the populations within each state. This would also draw more states into the swing column and would effectively enfranchise more people. This whole election is going to be decided by a handful of states—Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Arizona, and Virginia—and they are not the largest states.

There are other technical fixes, like improving ballot design, and increasing the power of third-party candidates by allowing voters to rank candidates, thus enabling instant runoff voting.

But addressing these problems with technical fixes doesn’t address the underlying problems that this country has with implementing democracy. The huge, historically entrenched problem of voter absenteeism cannot be addressed by instant runoffs, and no ballot change or tinkering will change why so many millions of people are so angry.

I think the grievances of the citizens are something we have to think really carefully about—what kinds of political arrangements, compromises, and deep fundamental changes need to happen for those grievances to be addressed in a positive way. Those are the real pressing questions.

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