The 2016 Presidential election was rigged. So was the 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000, 1996….All of them have been rigged since the first election that put George Washington in office in 1789. The rigging is not as Donald Trump proclaimed over the years. The ballot boxes are not stuffed. The dead do not rise from the grave to vote. Computers are not hacked to change votes nor are voting machines rigged to cast votes for the other candidate. Undocumented aliens do not flock to the voting booths. Voters are not bused around polling sites to vote at multiple locations. None of that is true, except for the occasional fraudster who forges a couple of registrations and votes.
Even then, the handful of minor election abnormalities don’t change elections, certainly not for the Presidency which encompasses 125 million or more voters. The fifty states have their own voting procedures and systems. The electoral process is further decentralized because the counties run the nuts and bolts of the elections. All this decentralization makes an organized voter fraud effort impossibly difficult.
That is not to say voter fraud has not happened in the past. Jim Crow voting laws suppressed the black vote for years in the south. The Chicago machine of Richard Daley and New York’s Tammany Hall under Boss Tweed were outrageous acts of voter fraud. Nothing like that would be tolerated today because the state or federal justice departments would be all over it. Even under Daley and Tweed, or any of the others that have existed, the fraud was limited to a locality. It wasn’t done on the scale to alter much more than part of an occasional swing state. There was nothing secret about it either. To achieve that level of accomplishment would require an overt presence. It was a horrible injustice then, but it doesn’t happen now. If it did, then we would know. No one ever comes up with credible voter fraud that includes more than a handful of voters. If voter fraud was significant, then the parties would be shifting power back and forth.
Nevertheless,, there is another rigging that does affect the fifty states. It has changed the outcome in five Presidential elections. In 1824, it elected John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson. In 1876, it elected Rutherford Hayes over Samuel Tilden. In 1888, it defeated sitting President Grover Cleveland in favor of Benjamin Harrison. In 2000, it elected George W. Bush over Al Gore. Now, in 2016, it has elected Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Yes, it is the Electoral College. It is rigged. It is institutionally rigged to give some people’s votes greater influence than others. It turns the concept of one person, one vote on top of its head. It is legal and constitutional because it is in the Constitution.
Hillary Clinton is going to win the popular vote by one-and-a-half-million votes or more. That is more than John Kennedy or Richard Nixon won the Presidency, not just in popular vote but by percentage. Clinton may even surpass Jimmy Carter in the popular vote margin. In the eleven Presidential contests decided by less than 3% of the popular vote, the Electoral College has selected the loser of the popular vote as the electoral winner four of those times. That doesn’t count the 1824 election when Adams defeated Jackson despite getting over 10% fewer popular votes.
Proponents of the Electoral College claim that it allows small states not to be overrun by the influence of bigger states. Others claim that it exaggerates the difference in the popular vote so a candidate who wins by several percentage points can amass an out-of-proportion Electoral College landslide and mandate. Similarly, another argument goes that if the popular vote solely elected the President, then a close popular vote margin could lead to endless recounts. With the electoral college, the election results are more decisive. Another argument is that no one region can elect a President by itself. Yet still another argument is that it protects rural states and areas.
For the Founding Fathers, the Electoral College, along with the Senate’s two senators from each state, were designed to entice the small states and slave-holding states into the union. It was also supposed to be a check against the passions of the people. If the people elected an unqualified, buffoonish, crude individual as President, the electors were expected as wise men to cast independent votes for a more qualified candidate. So much for that concept in 2016. Electors are now often selected by the political parties as gratitude for contributions or other forms of support. Over half the states have binding, although probably unconstitutional, requirements that the electors vote as the majority in the state did.
None of these arguments are particularly convincing. Big states aren’t the threat they were 200 years ago to the small states. A lot of that has to do with changing attitudes. Back then, people thought of themselves as a Virginian or a Georgian. Now, we think of ourselves as Americans. Today, Rhode Islanders aren’t afraid of Texas nor are Idahoans fearful that California will dominate them.
These days candidates only put an effort into 10-12 swing states. It doesn’t matter if they are small or large. Candidates visit only states that they feel that they have a chance to win. In the 1960, Presidential election, Richard Nixon promised to visit every state. That sent him to Alaska on the last weekend of the campaign when his time could have been better utilized in a larger state. The visit may have helped Nixon carry Alaska, but he needed a larger state to carry than Alaska’s three electoral votes. Campaign blunders like that don’t happen anymore. If a state is a lock, it doesn’t get a visit. If the Electoral College was gone, then voters everywhere would be prized. The candidates still may not visit the rural areas, but that is because the populations are low compared to cities. Candidates aggregate toward the population centers whether there is an Electoral College or not.
The claim that the Electoral College creates a mandate may work when the winning candidate wins the popular vote as Ronald Reagan did in 1980 with 51% along with 91% of the Electoral College. However, it loses its appeal and raises issues of legitimacy when the winning candidate loses the popular vote by a sizable margin.
The region argument is irrelevant as well. As far back as the pre and post-Civil War days, the country was divided by region. The Republicans carried the north overwhelmingly and the Democrats carried the south. In many cases,winning Presidential candidates weren’t even on the ballot in all states. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln wasn’t on the ballot in nine southern states out of the union’s thirty-two that used the popular vote to select electors (South Carolina appointed them by the legislature). In three other states, Lincoln received less than 2.5%. In the past, Presidents were elected by region. Today, a candidate has to have some support outside of one region because there aren’t enough voters to swing the election from just one region.
Yet, at the core of argument against the Electoral College is legitimacy. To win the popular vote and lose the election undermines the principle that all votes are equal. If the Electoral College was a great idea for selecting office holders, then it would be used for Senators, Governors, legislators and many other races. It isn’t.
None of this gets to the critical point that the Electoral College is a rigged system against one person, one vote.
What many people don’t realize is that the votes are weighted differently in each state. Wyoming has 580,000 people and three electoral votes. California has 38.8 million people and 55 electoral votes. California’s population is 67 times that of Wyoming, but its electoral votes are only a bit over 18 times. That means a voter in Wyoming has almost four times the influence as a voter in California when choosing the President. That is the reason that in close elections, the Electoral College misfires almost half the time.
Small states have far greater influence than large states. They also tend to be more conservative. This gives a built-in edge for the Republican Party in Presidential elections. In the past, it benefited the Democratic Party when it was strong in the south and west.
The same bias, but to a larger degree, can be found in the Senate. Wyoming has one senator for every 300,000 voters. California has one senator for nearly every 20 million. The Senate is even more biased than Presidential elections. This allows for small states to filibuster or combine to vote down ideas popular to a majority of the voters nationally. It is one of the causes of legislative gridlock.
Changing the Electoral College requires a Constitutional amendment. That means three-quarters of the states must approve that. As reviled as the Electoral College is, the chance of a Constitutional amendment is nil. First, small states that benefit from it would have to give up their benefit. Second, the only time doing away with the Electoral College gains support is when it misfires. However, one side wins when it misfires and has no motivation to make a change.
Fortunately, there is an effort afloat to beat the Electoral College without a Constitutional amendment. The National Popular Vote bill has been passed in 11 states with 165 electoral votes. When that number reaches 270 electoral votes, then it becomes law in all states that have passed it. That means whoever wins the national popular vote gets the electoral votes of the states that have passed the bill and over 270 electoral votes. No more Electoral College misfires. It does not matter who won an individual state because those electoral votes go in one big lump sum to the popular vote winner and guarantees that person will be the electoral vote winner as well.
Although the 11 states that have passed the National Popular Vote bill are generally Democratic leaning, many conservative states from Arizona to Oklahoma have passed the bill in one or both legislative branches. It may take many years for the bill to become law in enough states to undermine the Electoral College’s quirks, or maybe it never will. It is a viable alternative to the far less likely alternative of a Constitutional Amendment. Until something changes, the threat is very real that the next President could also be elected despite failing to win the popular vote. That would be another blow to democratic legitimacy and another blow to faith in the American political system.