In spite of continued attempts, either misguided or malevolent — or both — by national leaders to undermine public trust and confidence in the American free press and free elections, the United States’ model of political and individual freedom has inspired billions around the planet. Barely 75 years ago, we had only 11, count ‘em, democracies in the world: Australia, Canada, Chile, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Despite both China’s and Russia’s continued aggression against democratic values as threats to their oppressive regimes and the increasingly anti-democratic actions of the governments of Hungary and Turkey — along with the failure of democracy to establish a beachhead in the Middle East — according to Freedom House, there are, with acknowledged imperfections, 116 democracies in the world now. That number should be a source of both pride and encouragement for all who care about peace, human justice and progress.
But before we proud people who live in what former President Ronald Reagan called “the shining city upon a hill” begin patting ourselves on the back for the democratic example that has inspired millions, let us realize that not one fledgling democracy anywhere in the galaxy has chosen — over the past two centuries — to adopt the U.S.’ unique method of electing a president, the bizarre and manifestly undemocratic Electoral College.
Think about it: Every library board member, city councilor, state legislator and U.S. senator and representative — but not the president — is elected directly by the people. With its contaminated origins in a compromise to appease — by rewarding more political clout to — the fledgling nation’s slaveholding states, the Electoral College was adopted. Because each state, regardless of how unpopulated it is, is guaranteed two U.S. senators and at least one U.S. representative (which translates directly into electoral votes), in 2016 each of Wyoming’s three electoral votes represented just 195,000 state residents. California, with about 39 million residents, qualified for 55 electoral votes, but a single Golden State electoral vote was awarded for every 700,000 or so Californians.
The Electoral College means in practice that presidential candidates and campaigns concentrate the majority of their time, energy and dollars on fewer than a dozen “swing states,” where the outcome is in doubt. If you live in deep-red Kansas or deep-blue Vermont, you’re unlikely to see so much as a TV spot, let alone a real-live nominee, in your state.
Twice in this young century alone, the popular presidential preference has been denied the nation’s highest office. In 2000, the Democratic vice president, Al Gore, won 543,895 more votes than his Republican opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who, when the Supreme Court declared the then-ongoing Florida recount to be unconstitutional, was declared the winner. To Gore’s credit, he graciously conceded, pledged his support and even managed a memorable one-liner: “You know the old saying: You win some. You lose some. And then there’s that little-known third category.”
After the 2000 election, the newly elected U.S. senator from New York announced, “It’s time to do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president.” Sixteen years later, when she won 2,864,874 more votes than her presidential opponent and still lost the White House, Hillary Clinton had to regret the failure to close the Electoral College. It’s no accident that every other democracy in the world has rejected following the American system for selecting a president. It’s time now for the U.S. to do the same.