One person, one vote and the Electoral College

Andrew Coyne wrote a great column on electoral reform this week, which appeared in the National Post and several other PostMedia papers.  You can read it here.  One of the points he brings up is that a foundation of democracy is the principle of “one person, one vote”.  It would feel very undemocratic if we started to choose segments of the population and assigned them additional votes.  Imagine if millionnaires were entitled to three votes or green-eyed people got twenty votes.  What if votes for a certain party counted for double that of another?  If you think it sounds ridiculous, you should read Coyne’s article to the end.  Here’s the link again.

While it’s true that not every vote matters as much as another in Canada, we can take some solace in comparing ourselves to our neighbours to the South, who really should get rid of their electoral college system… because it’s 2016.

On those rare occasions when I’m discussing presidential vs. parliamentary democracy with my American friends and family, one might say “At least in America, the people get to vote directly for the president.”  If that statement were true, there is a whole other discussion that can take place.  Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Although many Americans think they get to vote directly for the presidential candidates, they actually still vote for Electors, whose trip to Washington, DC (to actually elect the President as part of a College) no longer takes several days as it may have when the Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia in 1787.  The system skews votes in a variety of ways.  It gives smaller states more say than they otherwise would have.  However, it also assigns all the electors from a given state to the candidate who wins a majority in that state (except in Maine and Nebraska).  In fact, there is no law preventing these Electors from voting for a presidential candidate other than the one they pledged for (and were chosen to support) and it has happened more than once.

The end result is that very few individuals’ votes for President actually matter.  Candidates end up spending the majority of their time and effort in just a few swing states.  But it can get weirder.  The following video explains how someone can become President of the United States with only 22% of the total votes.

Surely, there were reasons this method was adopted over 200 years ago.  The most shameful of them is that it enabled the Three-Fifths Compromise.  Slaves couldn’t vote in federal elections until 1865 (when the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery).  Until then, however, slaves were still counted in the censuses that determined how much representation each state would get… at 60% of a free person… and that representation was given to the non-slave voters in those states… who used it in Washington to speak in favour of slavery.

It would not be possible to usurp voting power that belonged to slaves without the electoral college.  Fortunately, there is no longer a need for it.

Canada is not the only country that could use some electoral reform.

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