April 24, 2019 | 63° F

O'BRIEN: United States electoral system needs significant reform

Opinions Column: Policy Over Politics


What makes a democracy? If you ask people around the world, you would likely hear descriptions of a system in which the voices of a population are expressed through its politics, one where each person has a say and one where politicians are held accountable by voters via majority or plurality rule. These are very broad notions with many possible interpretations and structures, but democracy, in a way, is like pornography: you know it when you see it. 

The United States is known around the world as the pioneer of modern democracy. Our system was once considered revolutionary, inspiring decades of populist rebellions against monarchs and dictators across the globe. But today, we lag far behind our peer countries in how we choose our leaders. Once-envied institutions now make the rest of the world scratch its head in amazement. As our peers place more faith in the ability of voters to determine their own fate, the original Western democracy is slowly sliding in the opposite direction. 

Take the House of Representatives as an example. Candidates representing the Democratic Party are almost certainly going to win the majority of votes in November’s midterm elections, perhaps millions more than Republican candidates. One prominent polling expert, G. Elliott Morris, estimates that with the current Democratic lead in the polls of seven points, there is an approximately 55 percent chance they win the house majority. But, he also estimates that even with such a large lead, actual control of the chamber remains a toss-up. The cause of this disproportionality is the practice of partisan gerrymandering, in which states draw congressional maps to maximize the number of seats for their party. Gerrymandering has existed in the U.S. for two centuries and both parties do it when given the chance. But, more extensive voter data, increasingly fierce political polarization and a Supreme Court reluctant to intervene have allowed the practice to spin out of control and undermine the core elements of our electoral process. 

The electoral college presents an even stranger case. It was expected to be a small group of the country’s elite able to overrule the population if something went horribly wrong. But it never once served this purpose. Envisioned as a deliberative body meant to meet and discuss the decision of the people, it has never once done so. Almost immediately, it became a points system with the position of an elector becoming completely symbolic. In most states, electors are bound either by law or by convention to vote for whomever wins the popular vote in the state. The result of this system has been some voters mattering far more than others. Statistically speaking, a voter in Wyoming matters 2 to 3 times as much as a voter from New Jersey. Those from swing states and small states are given disproportionate influence. Logically, this makes no real sense, of course. A resident of Wyoming is no more of an American than you or I am, but our electoral system says otherwise. 

No other country on the planet has a system resembling this. It is an 18th century anachronism with no place in a modern democracy. Most modern societies have come to the conclusion that one person gets one vote, no more and no less. Apparently in the United States, the oldest and proudest democracy in the world, we have yet to discover this obvious idea. Some Republicans even attempt to justify treating their opponents’ voters as less than full citizens based on vague notions of where they might give speeches under a popular vote system, as if that should be a factor when deciding if every American deserves a full vote. Really, these critiques are formed with a conclusion already in mind and are shamelessly and nakedly partisan.

The United States, throughout its history, has made steady progress in making its electoral system more fair and democratic in nature, and we can surely do it again. In the 1830s, Andrew Jackson led a populist revolt that led to the enfranchisement of poor white people. In the Progressive Era, the masses mobilized for the popular election of U.S. senators and secured the ballot for women. Decades later, southern Black people won their hard-fought battle for the vote, and party nominations brokered by powerful political bosses gave way to electoral primaries. The stakes in today’s electoral reform fights are decidedly less dire, but still important in maintaining trust in the often brutal, unforgiving process of democracy. If government continues to value some voters’ voices as more important than others, we risk further polarizing ourselves, continuing to elect deeply unpopular leaders and eroding faith in the democratic values that have made America the most prosperous and powerful nation in history.

Connor O'Brien is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in economics. His column, "Policy Over Politics," runs on alternate Thursdays. 


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Connor O'Brien

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