Democracy is sacred to me. I believe democracy is sacred to all progressives, because we believe that the people—all the people—deserve an equal voice in how our laws are made, and how our government is run. One would think Americans of every political persuasion would agree. Maddeningly, that is not the case. Republicans prioritize the acquisition of power over everything else. They don’t care if they gain power through a process that denies the people their say. Given their position on the Electoral College and on electoral gerrymandering, it’s impossible to draw any other conclusion.
Republicans claim that the Electoral College has real benefits. They make a lot of arguments in its favor, some of them more ridiculous than others (Eric Levitz does a great job of listing a whole bunch, and then demolishing them). One professional right-winger argued that abolishing the EC in favor of a system where we do something crazy, like declare the candidate who gets the most votes the winner, “would favor media personalities and celluloid campaigns.” In case you’re wondering, the 2016 election did not cause the person who made that argument to rethink that position. Those words were, in fact, published a year and a half after The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote won the presidency.
A relatively more serious argument (talk about a low bar to clear) Republicans make is that abolishing the Electoral College would mean presidential candidates would focus only on heavily populated areas of the country, ignoring small states and rural areas. However, even with the Electoral College in place, candidates still end up largely ignoring rural areas as well as small states because, duh, there aren’t that many votes there.
Robert Speel, political science professor at Penn State, makes this clear by looking at the 2016 presidential election:
Data from the 2016 campaign indicate that 53 percent of campaign events for Trump, Hillary Clinton, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine in the two months before the November election were in only four states: Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio. During that time, 87 percent of campaign visits by the four candidates were in 12 battleground states, and none of the four candidates ever went to 27 states, which includes almost all of rural America.
Even in the swing states where they do campaign, the candidates focus on urban areas where most voters live. In Pennsylvania, for example, 72 percent of Pennsylvania campaign visits by Clinton and Trump in the final two months of their campaigns were to the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas.
In Michigan, all eight campaign visits by Clinton and Trump in the final two months of their campaigns were to the Detroit and Grand Rapids areas, with neither candidate visiting the rural parts of the state.
A related argument is that having an Electoral College requires a winning coalition that, in conservative commentator Rich Lowry’s words, reflects “greater geographic diversity.” In other words, even if only a small number of states get attention from candidates, at least those states represent different regions. However, as Speel pointed out, rural states still got almost no attention in the 2016 general election.
More broadly: So greater geographic diversity is what’s important, huh? Okay. Never mind that winning a majority of the popular vote also requires geographic diversity. The numbers don’t lie. As The New York Times editorial board pointed out, in a piece calling for the EC to be either radically overhauled or scrapped: “big cities don’t come close to having enough votes to swing a national election.” You can’t win a national majority without getting large numbers of votes from different kinds of regions.
But since we’re on the subject of Republicans caring about diversity, we might ask them about other forms of diversity, ones that bring to bear issues that have roiled our country since its founding. In 2016, the Electoral College anointed a president who not only got 3 million fewer votes than his opponent, but whose votes, one might say, did not reflect greater racial diversity.
Only because of the Electoral College could we have ended up with a president who lost non-white voters 4 to 1. Voters of color are just about 30% of all American voters, yet they were only 10% of Trump voters. So much for greater diversity of the kind that matters a bit more than geographic diversity, because it bears on issues of real justice, discrimination, and even life and death for too many Americans. Only because of the Electoral College could we end up with a president who essentially appealed solely to white voters.
I agree 100% with Elizabeth Warren, who in March 2019 declared:
Every vote matters, and the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting, and that means get rid of the Electoral College.
The current Electoral College system is undemocratic because it gives more weight to some voters than others. Thus, it violates the basic principle of a fair election, according to which each voter has an equal say. The EC gives significantly more say to rural voters, as the graph to the right demonstrates. The graph shows that “the average non-metropolitan person is 21 percent better represented in the Electoral College than the average metropolitan person.”
In addition to the Electoral College, gerrymandering is an even more obvious violation of the principle of fair elections. How can an election be fair when the electoral districts are drawn in such a way as to guarantee a particular outcome? Guaranteed election outcomes are supposed to be what they had in the Soviet Union, but we’ve got them right here in many of our states. Remember what North Carolina State Rep. Dave Lewis baldly stated regarding the map he helped create, which defined that state’s congressional districts: “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.” That’s not democracy.
Thankfully, mercifully, a North Carolina court agreed, and this week struck down the ridiculously gerrymandered map for its state legislative elections:
“The object of all elections is to ascertain, fairly and truthfully, the will of the people,” the judges wrote, quoting the North Carolina Supreme Court. The “inescapable conclusion,” they said, was that the maps “do not permit voters to freely choose their representative, but rather representatives are choosing voters based upon sophisticated partisan sorting.”
The judges offered a simple and clear rejoinder to Chief Justice Roberts’s warning [NOTE: in a Supreme Court decision handed down in late June] that judges would find it impossible to avoid getting caught up in the partisan bickering over legislative mapmaking. “It is not the province of the court to pick political winners or losers,” they wrote. “It is, however, most certainly the province of the court to ensure that ‘future elections’ in the ‘courts of public opinion’ are ones that freely and truthfully express the will of the people. All elections shall be free — without that guarantee, there is no remedy or relief at all.”
Let’s hope that other state courts follow North Carolina’s lead. The problem is that many state courts, including those in most of the states where Republicans have gerrymandered the districts, are controlled by conservative majorities who care more about preserving partisan advantage than democracy.
On gerrymandering, Republican efforts to thwart the will of the people and win far more power than they could actually garner through fair elections are also about race, and not just in the abstract, i.e., because voters of color favor Democrats. This detailed report from ProPublica, which examines specific instances from Wisconsin to Georgia to North Carolina to Texas, documents the “complex intersection of race and politics” at the heart of Republican gerrymandering. It is clear that race matters a great deal here.
Although Democrats should not unilaterally surrender their ability to gerrymander, as that would only increase the imbalance between Republican power and the will of the voters, our party should strongly support efforts to get rid of gerrymandering across the board, through federal legislation of the kind proposed by Sen. Warren (as part of a broader plan that includes measures on election security and greater guarantees for voting rights). In short, we must support fair elections everywhere in the United States.
We all know what the real elephant in the room (I know, I know) is when it comes to Republican motivations here. Take another look at the talking point from Mr. Loofah in the image that sits at the top of this post. Or listen to former Maine governor Trumpy LeTrump—I mean, Paul LePage, who complained that abolishing the Electoral College would mean “white people will not have anything to say. It’s only going to be the minorities who would elect. It would be California, Texas, Florida.”
Just as they do on virtually every other issue, right-wingers play on the fears of anxious whites about losing power to those gosh-darned minorities with their outrageous demands of, you know, having an equal say in our political system. Conservative hypocrisy on the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and voting rights in general, know no bounds. And that hypocrisy goes far beyond Donald Trump.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)