The Real Problem With US Elections and How To Fix Them

By Steve Gonzales
President, California Freedom Coalition
September 29, 2017

As anyone who followed the 2016 Presidential election knows, the voting franchise held by American citizens is not equal across the United States.

Three million votes cast by Californians — nearly the exact number of votes that put Hillary Clinton ahead of Donald Trump in the popular vote — were deemed irrelevant because of the “winner-take-all” rule of the Electoral College.

Because of that rule, the voting power of less than 80,000 voters spread out in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin counted more than those three million Californian votes. While the effect of the Electoral College on the 2016 election may seem abstract to most people in the US, for Californians it was like a kick in the gut to see so vividly that our collective vote did not count in the 2016 and a candidate that we voted 2 to 1 against became President.

Stinging from California’s frustrating inability to have a commensurate voice in the Federal system as it now stands, Californian legislators have recently passed two bills that intend to give the state’s voting population more influence in the next Presidential election.

The new law SB-568 will move California’s late in the game June primary election to the first Tuesday in March. The goal is the make sure that Californians, and their issues, are front and center in the long election cycle rather than an afterthought.

The other bill, SB-149 requires that all Presidential candidates file his or her income tax returns for the 5 most recent taxable years with the Secretary of State. This will ensure greater transparency in California’s elections.

The California Freedom Coalition, one of the largest pro-autonomy organization in California with over 15,000 members, emphatically endorses both of these bills and welcomes the legislature’s newfound interest in fixing California’s dis-enfranchisement at the Federal level. However, we feel it is important to stress that these bills do not go nearly far enough to make a difference to California and the United States.

Addressing California’s lack of an equal vote in Presidential elections cannot be limited to small fixes at the margins. It can only be addressed by a full-scale rethinking of the Electoral College that results in a complete overhaul, or better yet, a full repeal.

To achieve that end, Californians need to understand the history and original purpose of the Electoral College and to fully grasp how it has become a deeply undemocratic blight on American democracy that intentionally allows for a minority of the population to rule over the majority.

In 2000 and 2016 the Electoral College dictated that the candidate with fewer votes won. Before these elections, the Electoral College sent other losing candidates to the White House three other times, in 1824, 1876, and 1888. As fervent believers in democracy, these undemocratic results can hardly be what the framers of the Constitution intended.

The results are less surprising however, when one considers have far the Electoral College has deviated from its original conception and form. As articulated by the Founders, the Electoral College was designed to have a roughly one to one ratio of Electors and any state’s populations size, a principle enshrined in the Constitution in Article 2 Section 1 which reads:

Clause 2. Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

It is clear that the framers meant for the Electoral College to grow with the House of Representatives and to reflect proportionally each state’s population. While this sounds straightforwardly democratic in its premise, in practice the results have been much different.

By suppressing key groups in any given state, such as newly freed slaves in the Reconstruction era South or students and people of color in the current era, certain segments of population, and their financial backers, have been able to gain control of disproportionately larger number of Electoral College votes relative to the general population.

This disproportionality is amplified even further by the “winner-take-all” approach to awarding Electors which gives candidates the same number of votes whether they won by one vote or, as in California’s case in 2016, whether they won by three million. It is technically possible to win the necessary 270 electoral votes while winning only 22% of the overall popular vote, by winning the barest simple majority of the 40 smallest states and the District of Columbia.

A system in which such a result is even remotely possible is clearly indefensible since it disenfranchises millions of voters in states like California and New York. The framers of the US framework designed the Senate with the goal of ensuring that small states were to be given their “fair share” in the Senate. Yet propelled by money and ideology, small and mostly red states have now “double dipped” by obtaining an outsized influence in the Electoral College as well.

Given the magnitude of the representational disparity operating within the US Federal system, we at the California Freedom Coalition applaud any efforts by California’s politicians to address the issue. It is clearly a sign that California’s leaders understand that after the election of 2016, we clearly want this inherently unfair system fixed.

The legislation demanding the release of a candidate’s tax returns, SB-149, shows the rest of the US that Californians are fed up with the cynical gaming of the system and the loose accountability of money in politics. Looked at in another way, this bill is an indication of just how low American democracy has fallen and how even the most basic tenets of good government have been abandoned by the minority that has manipulated its way to power in the country.

Likewise, by moving the Californian primary to the beginning of the political calendar, lawmakers are communicating pointedly that we are also fed up with watching the election process take place almost exclusively outside of California in battleground states that are far from us not only in distance but also in culture and world outlook.

It is not even clear that SB-149 would have made a difference in 2016. Convoluted tax codes are Trump’s specialty in trade. He very conceivably could have had no trouble explaining away anything that looked bad or incriminating. Furthermore, Trump supporters, funders and voters alike, have shown that they are willing to put up with nearly anything as long as he keeps their disproportionate hold on power intact.

The beneficial effect of moving the primary to March is also not guaranteed. Even California’s Assembly’s own analysis of SB-568 has determined that there is no way to know if the effects will be positive:

Since no one can accurately predict the dynamics of future presidential election campaigns, it is impossible to know in advance whether or not a given state would have more influence on the nomination of a parties’ candidate by holding their primary or caucus earlier or later.

Welcome as these new laws are, a real solution for ensuring that Californians live a democracy in which their views, their issues and their vote counts just much as people living in Detroit or Pittsburgh will not be found in piecemeal measures that produce marginal changes.

Like it or not, if Californians want to live in a genuine democracy — if they want to address the real problems with the US Election process — they will have to press for a full tilt structural change of the badly warped national process that they find themselves in.

Eliminating the Electoral College, or at least its winner-take-all-aspect, should be California’s first non-negotiable demand along with ending and reversing of voter suppression.

Californians need to demand just as strongly and urgently the end of gerrymandering, which California did years ago, in other parts of the US so that large states like California can regain the edge that they are suppose to have in the House of Representatives to balance out their reduced role in the Senate.

Until then minor adjustments like requiring tax disclosure and fiddling with the primary date will help but it’s just the first step and a small one at that.

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