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RIA Novosti, Russia

US Election: The Beacon
of Democracy Successfully Uses
an Archaic System


By Konstantin Bogdanov

Translated By Tavus Kuliyeva

1 November 2012

Edited by Gillian Palmer


Russia - RIA Novosti - Original Article (Russian)

The U.S. votes nationally, but elects its president indirectly. The nomination of the future host of the White House is not determined by the results of nationwide voting, but by the so-called Electoral College, an assembly of representatives from all states.

In the eve of another presidential election in the U.S. many people have, yet again, been wondering: Why is the American electoral system so complexly designed and, from some perspectives, even undemocratic? And it’s not a foreign malevolence. In the U.S. itself, many complaints have accumulated toward the election process, ascending to the time of the founding fathers of the country. What’s so bad and good about this political apparatus?

Nationally, but Indirectly? How Does It Work?

A state delegates into the college a certain number of electors (depending on its population), which as a rule is the same as the state’s total number of Congressional representatives in both houses. In the 2012 election, for example, the number of electors from one state varies from 55 (California) to three (a number of sparsely populated territories, including Alaska). The total number of people in the Electoral College is 538.

The candidate who receives at least 270 electoral votes becomes the president of the United States. There are no legal restrictions imposed on the electoral delegates; strictly speaking, they can vote for whomever they please from the number of candidates. However, in the course of the long-term adjustment of political machine, the U.S. came to a scheme in which electoral delegates of a state automatically give their votes to the candidate who was voted for by the majority of voters of that state.

Scrupulous observance of such mechanisms, which ascend directly to early forms of American democracy of the 18th and 19th centuries, has led to the creation of a quite unique indirect electoral system.

On a regular basis there are complaints that the system is archaic and that it has to be changed toward a direction which corresponds more with principles of democratic expression of will (i.e. recognition of the results of the popular vote). But the current system has many defenders.

When Pitching the Votes in Makes No Sense (the “Pros”)

The first thing that the defenders of the Electoral College say is that the current electoral system is the reflection of the federal structure of the United States of America. After all, the country has been created by a union of autonomous, internally self-governing territories; the system of federal elections must reflect such a fundamental element of the Constitution.

Moreover, that throughout the 20th century, and further in the 21st century, the federal government’s authority has been steadily growing and becoming stronger, and many see a sort of a symbol of protection of states’ interests from autocracy of Washington and precise observance with the spirit of ideas of the founding fathers of the country in keeping the Electoral College.

The federalist argument is materialized in quite specific things—for instance, in the fact that the Electoral College allows the opinions of people in sparsely populated states to be taken into account. When counting the total amount of direct votes a situation will occur, according to Americans, that the President of the U.S. is not elected by the majority of the states, as it is supposed to be by the spirit of constitutional legislation, but by the few overpopulated states. Meanwhile, in order to preserve federalism, what is necessary is territorial division, not a race of demographic potentials.

On this background, it is also noted that the system of electoral delegates is much more sensitive to the votes of minorities than direct elections. In Arizona, more than a quarter of the population is Latin-American; in Louisiana and Mississippi, more than 30 percent are African-American. Those numbers become insignificant in a federal-scale direct election. But from the point of view of winning electoral delegates from a certain state, those local groups of ethnic minorities suddenly start playing an important role. That demands from candidates and parties an increased attention to their needs.

The system of electoral delegates, in fact, renders meaninglessness to such a well-investigated technique of falsification as pitching in of the votes and organized voting. The effect of voter turnout with 90 percent voting for a certain candidate is in no way reflected on the nationwide results: A state will only influence on the federal outcome of election within its quota of electoral delegates. This, in principle, excludes cultivation of various kinds of “special” region-machines, whose voting, organized by administrative resource, is able to give additional votes to a preferred federal candidate or the ruling party.

(By the way, that doesn’t abolish shenanigans inside the states. The Florida story from 2000 is worth mentioning, when the specific ballots were made in such an intricate way that a person who wanted to vote for the Democratic candidate could easily make a mistake and put a checkmark for the Republican. Some experts believe that this dirty trick allowed the Republicans win several thousand votes, which as it turned out, passed the White House on to George W. Bush instead of Al Gore.)

Many political scientists also point out that majoritarian electoral system (when “a winner takes all”) is a stabilizer of the political system: it leads to consolidation of the two-party system and cuts off the opportunity for political extremists to win the majority of votes.

The arguments are beautiful and logical; however, this structure is regularly under the fire of criticism, and the opponents’ grounds don’t sound less convincing.

The Form Wins over the Content (the “Cons”)

The main pretension is that the American electoral system is unrepresentative. Simply put, the ratio of electoral delegates inaccurately reflects the ratio of the submitted votes within the country. Sometimes it doesn’t represent at all: For instance, in 1876 and 1888, the Electoral College elected presidents who in total received fewer votes than their opponents. The third such case, which contributed to conversations about the necessity of a political reform, happened in 2000, when George W. Bush became president, having received in total less of the popular vote (but not electoral delegates) than Al Gore.

Paradox: In a country that is considered to be an example of democracy, the electoral system does not ensure decision-making by the majority of the popular vote. And those who point this paradox out are certainly not only offended parties from the countries mentioned in regular statements by the State Department for their “insufficient development of democracy.” Very often this argument comes from the mouths of Americans themselves.

The electoral delegates system is unrepresentative, in a sense, of a specific number of voters per one electoral delegate. That’s a reverse side of federalism. Despite the fact that the amount of electoral delegates is regularly adjusted in accordance with demographic statistic, nevertheless, the tradition of representativeness has led to the fact that the sparsely populated states like North Dakota and Delaware are allowed to bring forward more impactful electoral delegates than densely populated big states. That is, one vote of a voter from a deserted backcountry on the general federal scale means more than the one of a voter from an “anthill” like California.

A majoritarian electoral system substantially consolidates the two-party system, suppressing electoral chances of other parties. This, as we have already noted, leads to a more stable political system in the country. But at the same time, it leads to squeezing third parties and independent candidates out of the political arena. Many in the U.S. complain that the two-party system has become rusty and no longer represents the interests of American society adequately.

One more key moment in the criticism is the overstated role of swing states. The so-called swing states are those in which (unlike the determined safe states) there isn’t a traditional winner. A major fight always unfolds for the votes of their electoral delegates. To break Democrats in New York or Republicans in Texas is nearly impossible — but why bother, when Florida and Ohio are always contested and there, there’s more chance for success?

As a result, according to estimates of American political scientists, practically all the resources of the electoral campaign are concentrated on just 15-16 states (and up to 75 percent on only of five of them); in half of the states there is no campaigning at all. The residents of decided states are, in fact, only present to persuade the swing states.

Overstatement of the role of the swing states automatically leads to less motivated voters in decided states. A voter doesn’t have a reason to vote, for example, in California (Democrats are going to win anyway) or in Alabama (Republicans). And that applies to supporters of traditional winners as well as to their opponents. The figures are inexorable: If in the swing states the voter turnout on presidential election day reaches up to 70 percent, then in the decided states it sometimes fails below 50.

Finally, the by no means unimportant argument against the electoral college is the opinion of the voters themselves. In recent years, in different surveys, from 60 to 80 percent of participants spoke in favor of introduction of direct presidential elections by a majority of votes. That isn’t a reason yet to break the constitution frantically, but it already requires a serious consideration by the political elite.

How to Change Everything so as Not to Change Anything?

Elements of such consideration can be observed in a so-called National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (a national electoral agreement between states). That is a quite ambiguous initiative from below, which in the framework of preserving the Electoral College is intended to count in the results of direct voting.

Its purpose is so that the member states in the compact dissuade their electoral delegates from voting for the candidate-winner of the state, but instead to vote for the nationwide champion. By doing so, if states that give no fewer than 270 electoral votes signed the agreement, then it is possible to make the Electoral College almost a decorative institution of automatic confirmation of direct voting. Simultaneously, the opportunity to vote “differently” will be preserved (the American political system really values secret mechanisms of stabilization).

However, as of now, only eight states and the District of Columbia (only 132 votes in the Electoral College) have joined the “compact.” And the prospects of such “pedantic” change of constitutional structure without changing the Constitution substantially don’t look rosy.

And that means that the U.S. will keep voting in its old, dusty, archaic electoral system, which has suffered through decades of “subtle adjustment” of formal procedures and mutual lapping of the elites.



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