Why America needs to ditch the electoral college as soon as possible

OPINION: We cling to this arcane institution not out of a sense of tradition, but because Republicans know they can’t win elections without it

People urge for all votes to be counted during a demonstration outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center where votes are being counted, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Philadelphia, following Tuesday’s election. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

The electoral college is trash. Full stop. That’s it, that’s the takeaway. 

Beyond its racist origins and its patently undemocratic practice, we cling to this arcane institution not out of a sense of tradition, but because Republicans know they can’t win elections without it. Democrats, meanwhile, are reticent to ever take on American institutions even if it means their continued losses.

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White folks of both parties are happy to tend monuments to white male power that leave the rest of us without the ability to influence the electoral outcomes of the country we all live in. The electoral college is one such institution and must go if we are to honor the spirit of majority rule. There is no other office for which we use this two-step voting process and there is nothing to suggest that the office benefits from this type of organization. 

A woman stands in line to vote as the sun rises above the Main Street Branch Library vote center Tuesday in Huntington Beach, California. The passage of Proposition 17 in California means more than 50,000 formerly incarcerated felons there will have their voting rights restored. (Photo by Apu Gomes/Getty Images)

The presidency is the one position that is supposed to represent all of the people, whether you voted for the candidate or not, their constituency is the entirety of the American population. Yet, the way the electoral college operates only a few states are actually treated as such. There is really no incentive for nominees to visit all 50 states because 270 electoral votes—rather than a majority of the 142 million votes cast this election cycle—is the magic number. As election coverage winds down, the conversation centers on the same key states that are essential to every election cycle—Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and the other battleground states with the right number of electoral votes that create a path to victory for the candidates.

The world is a very different place than it was in 1787. Most Americans are literate, have access to robust networks of information, and do not require intermediaries to register their political preferences as they did 200 years ago when this scheme was conceived. Then again, it is questionable whether electors were needed then as the franchise was already limited to the learned few. This reality, however, will not change the very real investments America has made in maintaining the electoral college as an extension of white supremacy. 

While the electoral college theoretically turns voter preferences at the ballot box into presidential votes, it has not quite saved us from our lesser selves. The 2016 election of Donald Trump has shown us that the electoral college will not and does not rein in negative impulses by a motivated minority. Rather, the electoral college can be used as a tool for this minority to exercise their will against an unwilling majority.

Utah County Officials Pick Up Early Voting Ballots From Dropboxes For Processing
PROVO, UT – OCTOBER 26: An election worker tries to resolve issues with problem ballots on a computer screen at the election office on October 26, 2020 in Provo, Utah. Utah is one of several states that has recently moved to mail-in ballots for presidential elections. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

There is little to bridle the anti-majoritarian tendencies of this institution because this is how it was designed to operate. The Framer’s knew it too, they were the minority who sought to control the majority who did not have access to full citizenship, personhood, property, or money. And this, not the preservation of democracy, is why we are in this mess today.   

As the republic has grown, the electoral college has handed a number of victories to white men who had neither the popular vote nor a mandate when they assumed office. I emphasize their gender and race because if this was the case for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, the calls to abolish the electoral college would have likely been resounding. We are fine with white men who bend the system to their will so long as the benefits accrue to white people. In a white-identified country whose demographics are quickly moving in a more diverse direction, the electoral college is one of the last vestiges of white power.

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Not only is the electoral college a reminder that the rest of us are not seen as fully capable of participating in democracy, this institution is used as one more firewall to maintain white dominance in a country that is increasingly non-white. The Electoral College insures the United States will remain a white-run country even if demographics indicate otherwise.

While we are tearing down Confederate monuments, we should also be looking to dismantle the electoral college. The electoral college is just as much a monument to white supremacy as Stone Mountain—enduring and seemingly immovable. If the formula for covering jurisdictions in the 1964 Voting Rights Act is too old to be useful and does not match the realities of the world we currently live in, according to the Supreme Court, then it is certainly high time that Congress does its job in amending the constitution and consign this 200-plus year old relic to the dustbin of history. To the victors go the spoils, unless the victors are a mélange of Black, Latinx, Native, Asian, LGBTQ, progressive, and others—then we need guardrails to save our democracy. 

Niambi M. Carter is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Howard University. She is the author of American While Black: African Americans, Immigration and the Limits of Citizenship.

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