On November 8, millions of Americans went to the polls and cast their ballot for president. Twenty days later, I sit here writing this column, observing that one presidential candidate leads the other by some 2 million votes. But the candidate with the 2 million-vote lead, Hillary Clinton, will not be inaugurated as our nation’s 45th president on January 20, 2017. This marks the second time in the last five elections that an outdated, undemocratic institution, the Electoral College, will deny the popular vote winner the presidency. Put simply, it’s time for a popular election to replace the Electoral College.
Many of the problems with the Electoral College were readily apparent even before the 2016 election. The institution was originally created, in part, to boost the importance of smaller states in a federalist system. Under the Electoral College, each state receives a minimum of three electoral votes. Wyoming is one such state with three electoral votes. Wyoming has approximately 430,000 eligible voters, thus one electoral vote is equivalent to 143,000 Wyoming voters. Meanwhile, Florida has approximately 14.5 million eligible voters and 29 electoral votes. This makes for a ratio of 500,000 voters per electoral vote. Thus a vote in Wyoming has more than three times the impact as a vote in Florida under the current system. For those wondering, Virginia has approximately 5.2 million eligible voters and 13 electoral votes for a ratio of 400,000 voters per electoral vote.
Another issue with the Electoral College is the manner in which it magnifies the importance of “swing states,” and thus in essence erases the votes of tens of millions of Americans. This year 33 states were decided by a margin of more than ten percent – essentially the outcome in those states was never in doubt. Collectively, the 71 million votes cast in those 33 states mattered a whole heck of a lot less than the 63.5 million cast in the other 17 states. Pardon the pun, but one can argue that under the Electoral College, the razor thin margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (a collective 101,000 votes) “trumped” all other votes in this election. It’s just plain wrong to have a system where one person, one vote doesn’t exactly ring true.
Beyond the numbers is the sad fact that the Electoral College encourages a whole bunch of undemocratic activity. State legislators in swing states are certainly incentivized to maximize an advantage for their party by excluding as many voters of the opposing party as possible. It’s no coincidence that Florida, with Republican majorities in both their houses for the better part of two decades, disenfranchises nearly 1.5 million ex-felons. Nationwide, the Sentencing Project estimates that nearly one-quarter of the voting-age African American population is not allowed to vote – a relic of disgusting policies enacted after the Civil War to prevent African Americans from gaining political power.
With all that in mind concerning the Electoral College, another idea is being floated. One Virginia delegate has introduced a bill to alter the winner take all system. The concept is that Virginia’s thirteen electoral votes would be proportioned based on the popular vote. I don’t see this as value added for the process.
Looking ahead to the General Assembly, it appears the hottest topic will be amending the biennial budget. While the economy has made some improvements, we are still on course to have a $1.2 billion shortfall. The Governor will announce his proposal on December 16. Look for some funding challenges in human services – particularly funding for mental health and other much needed programs. Both the House and Senate have recently completed their finance retreats. It is an “eyes wide open” scenario as we begin the work of Session starting on January 11.
With Thanksgiving behind us, the holiday season is in full swing. I encourage you to support our local businesses as you do your shopping. They deserve our support as the flagship stores in our neighborhood. Season Greetings to you and yours.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]