As we reimagine—and fight for—the anti-racist, democratic, equitable world we want to see, it’s imperative that we learn from the leaders who’ve been doing this work all along. In ELLE.com’s series Just Three Things, we’ll be interviewing activists about the three things they wish more people knew about their area of expertise. Here, Virginia Kase, CEO of the organization League of Women Voters and member of the National Task Force on Election Crises, tells us three things she wishes people more people knew about the electoral college.
1. The Electoral College is a complicated process.
We joke around that the Electoral College is not a place, but it’s a process for electing the president. With the Electoral College, each state has a number of electors based on its combined number of senators and representatives in Congress. In each state, after a general election, the party that won the state’s popular vote appointments a slate of electors—people are often chosen as a reward for service to the party—who will meet on the same day to cast their vote for a presidential candidate. (A candidate needs a total of 270 electoral votes to win a presidential election.) This year, those electors are going to meet on December 14th. Then on January 6th, the U.S. House and Senate will hold a joint session to count the electoral votes and the vice president will announce the results.
2. The Electoral College is tied to the country’s original sin of slavery.
The origins of the Electoral College really lie in the compromises that the framers of the Constitution struck to secure its ratification. As mentioned, the number of each state’s electors is the same as the total number of that state’s congressional delegation: the two senators plus its number of U.S. House representatives, as determined by the census. Slave states wanted those in slavery to be counted toward its population, even though at the time they were completely disenfranchised—only white, landowning men could even cast a vote. Slave owners wanted to be able to subjugate men, women, and children in this cruel system of slavery, but they wanted to have those same people counted towards their state’s ability to wield power in the government. That’s where they struck the three-fifths compromise, which allowed for three-fifths of those held in slavery to be counted. That translated into more representatives in the House and more votes in the Electoral College. It was a system that rewarded slave owners by giving their states more power while holding millions and millions of people powerless.
3. The Electoral College has so many shortcomings.
The Electoral College is not reflective of a true democracy in which people directly decide their leaders. The system over-represents some states and under-represents others, creating campaigns that focus on a few “swing states” that can really determine which way the election goes. Most states have this winner-take-all method for rewarding their electoral votes; in 48 states, the winner of the state popular vote gets all of the electoral votes for that state, no matter how close the race might be. In U.S. history, a presidential candidate has actually won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College count five times. It’s happened twice in the past 20 years. The other problem is that the Electoral College doesn’t support a multi-party system. There are sometimes Green or Libertarian candidates on the ballot, but they aren’t included in the main debates or given much air time because the system doesn’t allow for it; with four or more candidates, it wouldn’t be possible for any one person to achieve the necessary 270 electoral votes. That’s why you haven’t seen any third parties be able to emerge in a really meaningful way. There’s also this term “faithless electors.” Electors are expected to pledge their vote for the candidate of the party that nominated them, but there have been a few times in history where we’ve seen “faithless electors” stray from their party commitment. They’ve never successfully influenced the outcome of an election, but they’re something people will be talking about this election cycle.
And one more thing: There are efforts to change the system.
There’s a lot of controversy around abolishing the current process, which would require a constitutional amendment. But short of abolishing the Electoral College, there’s a workaround, a state-based approach called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. [Editor’s note: LWV supports the compact and abolishing the Electoral College.] It’s an agreement among states that their electors will vote for whoever has won the national popular vote, regardless of who won the state’s popular vote. The National Popular Vote bill has been enacted in 16 jurisdictions who possess 196 of the electoral vote; it will take effect when enacted by states with a combined total of 270 electoral votes. If we want to get to a place of reconciliation and healing in this country, beyond the systems that were set up to give advantage to certain people over others, we need to make sure we’re fixing the things that went wrong from the beginning. It comes down to being able to have equal representation, and it comes down to one person, one vote. In a true democracy, that’s what happens.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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