Opinion: Electoral College part of a broken system | Opinion | DW | 18.12.2016
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Opinion

Opinion: Electoral College part of a broken system

DW's Jefferson Chase says the Electoral College symbolizes the shortcomings of how the US chooses its president. But the real problem is that the setup does not reflect the wishes of the majority of voters.

To be clear right off the bat: On Monday, December 19, the Electoral College will and should confirm Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. Under the current rules, Trump won the 2016 presidential election, the object of which is to amass a majority of electoral votes in a winner-takes-all, state-by-state process. As he himself might say, he "gamed the system" real good.

Now the Electoral College will do its job. But let's hope this is the last time it will do anything.

Defenders of the College, created in the late eighteenth century in response to arcane conditions in American history, argue that the body is the final firewall between the most powerful office in America and someone who is unfit to hold that office. When in modern history has that happened? Never.

Trump's election on Monday will confirm that there is no longer any consensus in the US about what it means for someone to be unfit to be president. For millions of Americans, making fun of the physically handicapped or being unable to form coherent arguments make a person unsuitable for the Oval Office. For millions of other Americans, those things do not. Why should the College enforce standards of rationalism and human decency that do not command an overwhelming majority in the United States?

Chase Jefferson Kommentarbild App

Jefferson Chase

It shouldn't, and it won't. The College's only modern-day function is to rubber stamp the result of the election. In a time of massive hostility toward governmental bureaucracy, it's a prime candidate for the ax. Americans should get rid of it. Save some time and money. Here I agree with Trump, or at least the Trump of 2012, who wrote via his preferred method of communication, Twitter: "The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy."

As usual, the reality TV star was misstating the situation a wee bit. The College is actually a residual curiosity, a holdover bit of traditional ceremony like those Beefeater hats the guards outside Buckingham Palace wear. Or at least the College would be if it did not symbolize what truly is a disaster for American democracy: the lack of a popular vote for the presidency.

According to the count as of December 17, 2,864,974 more people cast their votes for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. It's the second time in five presidential elections that the candidate who won the popular votes didn't win the election. And unlike in 2000 with Bush and Gore, the 2016 popular vote wasn't even really a nail-biter - Clinton's margin of popular victory is currently 2.1 percent.

From 1876 to 1996, the winner of the popular vote became president in every single election. Now the popular vote loser has taken the White House twice in 20 years. And the same side has benefited both times - the Republican Party and the less populous, less urban states.

There is a branch of the American government especially designed to protect smaller states from being dominated by bigger ones: the Senate. The president is supposed to represent America as a whole.

Here it's worth remembering that one reason why the president is not elected by direct popular vote is that America's founding fathers couldn't agree as to whether slaves should be counted as people or not. That was in 1787.

Fast forward 229 years, and America has a system that clearly favors one party and certain segments of the populace, and candidates for the presidency rarely visit the three largest states: California, New York and Texas in the general election. Two are liberal, one is conservative, and in each of them the eventual winner-take-all results are considered givens. Presidential candidates don't hear the views of the populations of those states on the campaign trail, and there's a structural disadvantage for people there to turn out to vote at all.

In terms of the US presidential election, some Americans are more equal than others. That's a form of government (and taxation) without representation, and even in this day and age, I would hope most people in the US would agree that such a situation is undemocratic, indeed un-American.

James Madison - known as the "father of the US Constitution" - warned against "mischiefs of faction," which he defined as "a number of citizens whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

When the Electoral College confirms Donald Trump as president on Monday, December 19, 2016, it will endorse an electoral outcome that is in keeping with the rule but runs contrary to the wishes of a clear plurality of American voters. Madison's worries have become reality. 

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