The case for eliminating the US electoral college

It would help do away with the repulsive, petty, and hysterical localism of this cycle's campaigns.

It would appear a consensus of a kind has been reached and that, as such, this particular US election cycle is indeed the dirtiest and most debauched in decades. Dan Balz in The Washington Post bemoaned that there has been “no check on rhetoric” from either campaign – “the guardrails have disappeared and there is no incentive for anyone to hold back”. Chuck Todd of NBC complained of “third-grade insults”, while long-time observer Brit Hume on FOX summed it all up when he said: “This is about as ugly as I’ve seen it get”.

Obviously, as an act of historical comparison, this feeling does not pair well with fact. Every campaign is the filthiest ever witnessed, as the American people are tortured by some new awful electoral tactic: Willie Horton in 1988; Medi-scare in 1996; and swiftboating in 2004. Crude politicking has been integral to campaigning since the very birth of the republic, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams attacked each other vociferously for their closeness to the French Revolution on the one hand, and monarchist tendencies on the other.

This despondent national mood, however, does point towards a more significant truth: that the electoral process itself has become corrupted. Much has been made of the impact of Super PACs, but more noteworthy than their outrageous ads is where they are being aired. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that $350m has been spent on ads thus far in only nine states, including Ohio and Florida.

The sort of national dialogue columnists like Tom Friedman have been hankering for cannot flower because the electoral system allows campaigns to burn all their resources in a handful of swing districts, ignoring vast “safe” swathes of the country, including essential states like Texas, California, and New York. The solution to elevating the discourse, then, is the elimination of the US's electoral college.

The original sin of the electoral college is that it was intended to discourage democratic mass participation, leaving critical decision-making powers in the hands of a few. The effect of applying this antiquated model outside the thirteen colonies has been the emergence of a two-party system where presidential elections have been won without capturing the popular vote (George W Bush in 2000 being the most recent example) and the share of the electoral college gained fails to match the share of the national vote (as when Ronald Reagan won 51 per cent of the vote but 91 per cent of the college in 1980).

This state-centric model has also created an ugly swath of Republican and Democratic fiefdoms. In 2004, George W. Bush took 71 per cent of the vote in Utah, while John Kerry captured 90 per cent of votes in the District of Columbia. Vast areas of the United States suffer from wasted vote syndrome as a consequence, a condition best expressed by a recent letter in USA Today which asked: “In red-state Utah, if one doesn't vote Republican, why bother?”

As such, the absence of a national discourse can be directly attributed to the electoral college, for the selection of the president is not decided by the country at-large but by 916,643 so-called undecided voters in six swing states. Hence, shows research conducted by National Journal, both camps have invested the majority of their resources in only three venues: $67m in Florida, $63m in Ohio, and $45m in Virginia. In North Carolina – which fell into the Democratic column in 2008 and is very much in-play this time around – Republicans have outspent Democrats by almost exactly a two-to-one ratio. The unscrupulous tone of the advertisements and the coarsening of the discourse more widely is merely a reflection of the desperation both campaigns feel regarding the need to win over these voters.

The total elimination of the electoral college would go some way towards ridding campaigning of this sort of repulsive, petty, and hysterical localism which is stunting the growth of a national conversation, and hindering broader political developments which might be good for the country if bad for certain constituencies. It is at present nigh-on impossible to discuss the need to rid the budget of costly and counter-productive farm subsidies in order to reduce the deficit, since any candidate who does so would fear throwing away a swing state like Iowa.

And then there’s Medicare and Social Security, which remain third rails in American politics because neither Democrats nor Republicans would want to endanger their chances of capturing the 29 electoral votes Florida has to offer. Thus the country wastes away while voters in Miami-Dade are reduced to watching mendacious adverts from the Romney campaign which accuse President Obama of plundering $716bn from Medicare in order to pay for Obamacare.

The punditocracy very much wants a cleaner, more intellectual campaign but as far has not presented a workable solution which might help tidy things up. Ending the electoral college cannot rid American politics entirely of dirty tricks, but it would be a pretty good start.


A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election. Photograph: Getty Images

Liam Hoare is a freelance writer, specialising in foreign affairs, whose work has featured in The Atlantic, Slate, and The Forward.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.