mrb's blog

The unfairness of the US presidential election system

Keywords: politics election democracy voting

As a European citizen who has been living in the US for 12 years, I am still shocked by how unfair the US presidential election system is.

I do not use the word shocked lightly. It is mind-boggling to me that the US is still using the system it is using.

For example, as a result of the Electoral College assigning a minimum of 3 electors per state, the vote of a Wyoming resident literally counts as being 3.3 times more important than the vote of a Pennsylvania resident (in Wyoming 1 elector represents 195 000 residents, in Pennsylvania 1 elector represents 640 000 residents.) How is this fair? This is no different than something like the Three-Fifths Compromise: assigning arbitrary importance levels to different groups of people.

The historical reason is that this system “forces presidential candidates to care about small states.” But this is wrong. As we have seen in the last few decades, elections are not decided by small states but by swing states. Candidates put their focus and campaiging efforts into swing states, not small states. This is a side effect that is widely documented and accepted.

But even if the Electoral College had the intended effect of putting more attention on small states, why should it? Why should a geographical area with a given population and given economic output have varying importance levels whether it is arbitrarily divided in 1, or 3, or 5 states, thereby giving it a minimum of 3, 9, or 15 electors? Of course this question would sound disparaging and certainly insulting to an American citizen of the late 18th century, where each state had a strong geopolitical and economical identity and independence from other states. But in modern 21st century America, this is less and less often the case. An imaginary/historical line divides Alex from Bob, therefore Alex’s vote has 3.3 times more weight that Bob’s vote? What?

Another result of the Electoral College is that it allows a candidate to be elected despite 78% of the population having voted against him. In fact, winning the election in spite of losing the popular vote has happened 4 times in US history. This is enough that it should make people question the efficacy of the system.

[Edit 09 Nov 2016: Not 4. But 5 times as it just happened again! Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election.]

The Electoral College might have achieved the goals it set to achieve when it was put in place in 1788, but is it still a good and fair system in 2016?


Friendly fire wrote: I agree with much of this post, however, the wyoming-pennsylvania unfairness is not like the 3/5 compromise in the most important way: the 3/5 rule was applied only to black people, it was institutionalized white supremacy. Although I suppose Pennsylvania is probably much more racially diverse than wyoming. Still, historically very distinct things are going on. Also, math error: 22%+88% does not equal 100%.
Cheers mate
13 Dec 2016 18:22 UTC

mrb wrote: I think my comparison to the 3/5th compromise is valid: one group of people (Wyoming residents, or white people) is given more importance over another group of people (Pennsylvania residents, or black people.) Whether the distinction is based on geographic location, or on ethnicity, is irrelevant in the logic of this argument.

(Thanks, I fixed the math error. How embarrassing.)
17 Dec 2016 21:50 UTC

NS wrote: It's technically possible to win the US elections with 0.000001% of the vote. See: 29 Jan 2017 20:31 UTC

mrb wrote: Well, low participation is a secondary issue which, by the way, can also happen with a direct popular vote.

My point was more to emphasize the other side of the coin: that a candidate can win despite 78% of the population *actively* voting against him. This is what is scary, and this scenario is impossible with a direct popular vote.

I reworded my post to focus more on the 78% "against" than the 22% "for".
07 Feb 2017 05:33 UTC

Tradutor Bastardo wrote: Well, I want to challenge the "brute majority" (also called democracy) here.

Why there would be a problem if the chosen president isn't the "most popular" one? It isn't an obvious thing to say "well, he had obtained 50% plus one, so he is overly more qualified to be our president".

What the hell are we thinking the brute democracy is the correct way? If it was, we wouldn't even concede the creation of the House of Representants and Senate...
16 Jul 2017 04:08 UTC

Matt wrote: This is an old post, but I thought I'd point out that the three-fifths rule was enacted to limit the power of the slave holders. The slave holders wanted the slaves to be counted as 1 whole person.

In the times of slow information movement, the Electoral College prevented population centers where large blocks of votes could be swayed more easily from overshadowing rural areas. And now that left-leaning, Democrat-voting people seem to crowd into population centers, it still maintains that effect.
11 Oct 2017 20:50 UTC

Ceasar wrote: I think "caring about small states" matters more when you think of the US as a federation of independent states. In the past, the states had much more power than the federal government, and it would make sense that the union would have trouble if small states were routinely ignored, possibly leading to secession.

That is a different subject than the flaws of plurality voting, which in my opinion, is deeply flawed and should never be used as a consensus mechanism.
13 Feb 2018 01:05 UTC