The outcome of every U.S. presidential election hinges on a few key swing states, whose electoral votes are awarded in a winner-take-all system. Often, that tips the balance toward one candidate—regardless of how that person performed in the popular vote.
But does choosing a head of state in this manner actually reflect the will of the people? Ensuring that every vote receives an appropriate amount of weight is complicated, according to University of Chicago political scientist James Lindley Wilson, an expert on representation and democratic theory in the United States.
In the following Q&A, Lindley Wilson—an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science—discusses some of the reforms that could make America more democratic.
In both 2016 and 2000, the winner of the Electoral College failed to win the popular vote. If that happens again, will voters be motivated to change the way we elect the president?
If three of the six most recent presidential elections were won by the loser of the popular vote, I do think that would create a lot of momentum and opposition to the Electoral College over the long term—especially if Democratic voters start to think about Electoral College reform as a higher priority issue. Change in the short term is harder to predict, because it would require action by state legislatures at a minimum. If Democrats again win the popular vote but lose the election this year, they probably will not have swept governorships and state legislatures, so the status quo could persist.
Some states have signed onto a pact agreeing to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. Could that strategy work if enough states join?
Yes. It’s called the national popular vote movement, and it’s already been passed into law in many states, totaling 196 electoral votes—the states include big ones like California and New York and small ones like Vermont and Hawaii. Typically, the laws are structured such that each state agrees to assign its presidential electors to the winner of the national popular vote—but only if enough other states also agree to do so that it creates an Electoral College majority. This ensures that states don’t water down their own votes unless they will actually achieve a broader shift to a new system.
There’s been quite a lot of success so far. The states that have signed on add up to almost 200 electoral votes, so only a few more big states would need to join to make this effective. Swing states don’t necessarily need to join—all that needs to happen is that enough states join to control 270 electoral votes. If that happens and the coalition survives litigation, it would clear the path for a Constitutional amendment to move to a popular vote.
Originally, the Electoral College was designed to protect small states. How do you think that fits within our ideas about fair representation in a democracy? Does it always mean ‘one person, one vote’?
In principle in an ideal democracy, sometimes it might be okay to have slightly unequally weighted votes, if that’s a way of increasing the representation and authority of minorities that otherwise would be neglected by the political process. The Senate (and the Electoral College) deviate from ‘one person, one vote’ in order to protect small states who would otherwise be neglected.
The problem is, there’s no real evidence that citizens in small states are being neglected in the first place from a political representation standpoint: Those voters tend to be from groups that already have lots of power. So reforms in the spirit of true democracy would try to remedy that by identifying populations that were actually underrepresented and implementing mechanisms to amplify their voices and votes in a responsible way, so that their representation in Congress was equal to that of other voters.
Could the Senate be reformed to be more representative?
The Senate is extremely difficult to change, and not just because of partisanship. The Constitution is written so that a state’s equal representation in the Senate cannot be changed without that state’s consent. That’s very unlikely, of course, because not only would there have to be bipartisan agreement, but states like Alaska or Wyoming would have to say, ‘Yes, we’re willing to have less representation than we currently have.’
There are also current proposals to reform the Senate by adding more states. That’s an imperfect solution, because it means there are still radical inequalities in voting power. The argument is that if those aggregate inequalities better match the partisan balance of the population, that at least creates a closer approximation of the ‘one person, one vote’ ideal within the Senate.
State legislatures are often responsible for drawing districts, which usually end up gerrymandered in favor of whichever party is in power at the time of the census. What might a fairer map-drawing process look like?
Several states, including many western states like Arizona and Colorado, have independent redistricting commissions that work well. Instead of the legislature itself directly drawing the districts, it appoints people to a relatively nonpartisan commission. That commission might have three Republicans and three Democrats, or unaffiliated members. That independent commission is empowered by the legislature and given some principles for what counts as a good district, and usually it avoids the worst abuses of gerrymandering.
Often though, legislatures are reluctant to create these commissions. That’s either because one party fears ceding power, or because incumbents in the majority party benefit from the status quo. If the boundaries of their own districts change, that could put their seats in jeopardy. It’s also worth noting that, until recently, this wasn’t an issue that voters found very important, so it hasn’t necessarily been a top priority for legislatures. I think that’s starting to change.
How healthy is American democracy right now?
I think the United States is probably closer to a breakdown and failure of democracy than it has been for a long time, perhaps since the Civil War. That said, the United States has been authoritarian with respect to significant portions of its population throughout its history—most notably African Americans.
But for the first time this year, we could see democratic backsliding on a large scale. I say that because we see it in all kinds of institutional domains—the rule of law, voter suppression, the Supreme Court and the Senate. One hopes that this election can remedy that somewhat and pull us back from the brink, but democracy is definitely at stake this year.