November 3, 2020

ST. HILAIRE | The Electoral College Bars Us From the Room Where It Happens

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This election day, I decided to commemorate the occasion with that most patriotic of soundtracks: Hamilton. While humming along to my personal favorite, “The Room Where It Happens,”I realized that I, myself, am barely in the room where it happens. I blame this fact on the electoral college; it has allowed politicians to neglect myself and my fellow New York constituents on the national level.

For some context, the electoral college is an indirect popular voting system. In simpler terms, everyone votes and whichever candidate wins the majority of votes within a state takes home the entirety of the state’s electoral votes. There are 538 total electoral votes up for grabs. The goal is to win 270. The electoral college is an archaic system; it was created in 1738 and has changed little since. It emerged as the brain child of James Madison, who, as a staunch southerner, wanted to ensure that the less dense American south would not be outnumbered by Northern states. The electoral college allowed the Southern states to count their slaves as ⅗ of a person to shrink the population disparity that existed between the two regions. Like many aspects of modern America, the electoral college is a quadrennial throwback to this nation’s racist origins.

The electoral college wasn’t brought to the forefront of the national consciousness 2016 when the electoral college votes sat at odds with the popular vote. Four years ago, as we all know, Donald Trump won the presidential election despite having less popular votes than Secretary Clinton. The country was in shock; the results made it seem like the American people weren’t voting for their leader, replaced by this nebulous, external body that could defy the people’s will. It’s a dismal picture, but that’s what the electoral college is: an external body that can elect a president that was not the people’s choice.

And who could forget the 2000 election between Bush and Gore? The year 2000 pulled the electoral college into relevancy, along with the household phrase of “voter fraud” for the first time since Senator Bayh’s push to abolish the Electoral College in 1969

In 2016, the outcome of the election perplexed me. Aside from the fact that the country had really stooped so low, I couldn’t believe that the candidate who garnered the most votes hadn’t won. We hadn’t learned about the origin of the electoral system in my Advanced Placement U.S. History Class yet, and I felt confused and helpless. If my vote didn’t mean anything, then what was the point?

On the brighter side, Americans are making an effort to learn from past mistakes with the electoral college. Isabelle Aboaf ’21, who filled her ballot out alongside me, was proud to report that electoral college reform was an issue on her ballot as proposition 113. However, I feel that that push against the system isn’t intense enough. Frankly, the system is in need of a complete makeover. A state’s electors are determined by the combined number of their House Members and their two senators. This system leads to a wide disparity between certain states. A notable example is that of California and Wyoming, where an electoral vote in the former accounts for over 700,000 people while the latter represents 193,000. 

The electoral college has also birthed this idea of battleground states that I, as someone from a very predictably blue state, find infuriating. Since the presidential election does not come down to winning individual people, but individual states, politicians have made a habit of diverting their resources to swing states. This system favors states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida which are not habitually democratic or republican while neglecting historically leaning states like New Jersey and Kentucky.

 I tuned into the Vice Presidential debate and had the opportunity to listen to a heated discourse centered around fracking, an issue that doesn’t affect the daily life or the economy of a New Yorker, but means a whole lot to Pennsylvania voters as Maya Rudolph made very clear in an Saturday Night Live Cold-Open sketch. Pennsylvania holds 20 electoral votes, which is nearly 50 percent less than New York’s 29 and 35 less than California’s 55 and yet Pennsylvania is a state to watch and a place where politicians routinely focus their time and resources. 

States like Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Arizona have fallen into this category of “purple statehood” leaving reliably blue and red states alike to be neglected in the campaigns. It becomes harder to convince myself that my vote matters when both the electoral college and national politicians don’t think so. 

As a Black woman whose vote has been routinely discounted by segregationist laws, poll taxes or structural barriers like work hours, I can not afford to be further ignored because of the state I live in. 

Sure, I can admit it, New York won’t be turning red anytime soon. We are a reliably blue state and will remain that way, and there is something exciting about turning on CNN and watching John King explain the multicolored map behind him. States become blue and red right before our very eyes as Trump claims another midwestern state and the Biden-Harris ticket seemingly sweeps along the coasts.

However, let’s face it — no one is contesting the non-crucial poll closings of states like New York and California. I won’t be staying up until almost 3 a.m. tonight trying to figure out which candidate is going to pick up New Jersey or Washington; neither will the candidates. Instead, we continue to play into the web of the electoral college and watch our televisions to see if Cal Cunningham, the North Carolina Democratic Senate challenger will win the Senate race; if Jon Ossoff, the Georgian challenger, will give the state a Democratic Senator; and whether Trump or Biden will take Florida’s 29 electoral votes

As results roll in, and my mind mirrors CNN’s magic wall, I’ve determined one thing for sure: We must continue to question the fairness of our dear electoral college. In the style of the beautiful alto tones of Aaron Burr, “I want to be in the room where it happens, the room where it happens” — and until the president is chosen via the popular vote, millions of Americans, including myself, will continue to wonder “how the sausage gets made.” And at that point, both this archaic system and our current president need to change.

Catherine St. Hilaire is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at cas529@cornell.edu. Candid Cathy runs every other Monday this semester.