Why Is the Presidential Election System so Broken?

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Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar dropped by Seattle on September 30 for a meet and greet event. Just a few days earlier on the 27, Kamala Harris hosted a gun violence solutions panel with local and state leaders, including Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. On August 25, Elizabeth Warren hosted a town hall at the Seattle Center. What do all of these candidates have in common? They all rushed back to early primary states like New Hampshire and Iowa within days. It’s no secret that the first group of primary states receives more attention. Every four years, politicians who want to spend some time in the oval office suddenly love wolfing down fried food at the Iowa State fair. The reason why is frustrating and illustrates just how woefully mismanaged modern elections are.

Iowa has been the first primary state since 1972. The reason why is innocuous. When the democratic party decided to spread out state nominations over a few months rather than in one foul swoop to increase participation, Iowa’s complex nomination process had to get started early—so they were placed at the front of the lineup without much thought. Iowa’s strange quirks in primary administration are the reason that there are several photos of Barack Obama playing bumper cars in 2008 while in the heat lobbying for the highest office in the nation. This poor structural planning has shaped the era of modern campaigning in which candidates spend months catering their messages to a tiny, rural, overwhelmingly white and conservative state that does not represent the ideological or demo- graphic composition of America at large.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United V. FE Cruling protected corporate political contributions as speech. This ruling, which was contested by individuals placed across the political spectrum from John McCain to Nancy Pelosi, has only exacerbated the problems Americans have being heard by their politicians if they aren’t CEOs or Iowans. Sure, presidential candidates will pass by some of the largest and most influential cities in the United States like Seattle every few months, but their focus on Des Moines and Wall Street is obvious considering how much energy and time they invest in those areas. The influx of corrupting money combined with the ridiculous requirement of candidates to shake the hand of every Iowan with a pulse and a form of valid ID has made the goal of the ultimate nominee reflecting the will of their civic constituency more akin to a funhouse mirror than an actual picture of what Americans want.

With all this being said, eventually there will be a democratic nominee. But at this point, they will face a greater institutional barrier to the will of the voters than poor organization of the primaries and campaign finance laws. They will face a constitutional failure—that of the continued existence of the electoral college.

There are two concurrent explanations of why the electoral college exists. The first is simple: the men who wrote the Constitution were members of the land- owning class. They wanted to create a Republican form of government free from tyranny, but they were also weary of mob rule. In an age in which education was not a right for all people and the general public was (arguably) less intelligent than it is now, there was reason from the perspective of the founders to place limits on the ability of voters to choose the president. The second was more nefarious. The electoral college is inherently tied to the three-fifths compromise. The north would have won nearly every presidential contest handily in the early days of the United States if it were not for the fact that the electoral college system allowed the south to count slaves as members of their voting populace when tallying the amount of electors each state would receive in the college system—even though they were not even recognized as human by the founders themselves. The south effectively lobbied to be able to count three-fifths of every black individual in their tally when considering how many electors each state would have. In a Time magazine article published November 6 of 2018, Journalist Akhil Amar states “the system’s pro-slavery bias was hardly a secret.” The electoral college was innovated for the dual purposes of ensuring the president was chosen responsibly in the eyes of the elite and keeping the institution of slavery represented in the capital.

In a modern context, the electoral college causes states to apportion all of their electoral votes to whichever candidate the majority of the state chooses, thereby nullifying the will of all those in the state in question that voted the other way. That means presidential hopefuls will be spending their days in just a few months in air-conditioned buses making their way through Florida, a state that swings between parties consistently, rather than hearing from a diverse array of citizens. There are organizations and individuals trying to rebel against the stupidity of the electoral college system. Most 2020 democratic candidates support dismembering it; but as things currently stand, they still have to operate within a broken system with wonky incentives that undermine our Democratic principles.

All of the problems presented here seem to create a lack of hope, but this should not be the case. Americans have created large-scale change before. The Constitution has been amended and the Supreme Court has reversed decisions. The parties have changed their primary layout before. It is vital that we as a collective citizenry not become jaded by the enormity of these problems but rather face them head on. If you feel compelled to do so, go to your party convention and engage. Call your representatives and talk to them about the way the system is constructed. Donate to legal organizations that seek to uphold the will of the general populace.

But you don’t have to listen to me—after all, I’m not an executive or an Iowan, so what do I know?