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National Issues

How the Electoral College contributes to economic inequality

I have a not-very-groundbreaking theory that there are three kinds of people: those who haven’t thought much about the Electoral College, those who hate the Electoral College and those who don’t really believe in democracy.

Why am I in the second group? The most obvious feature of the Electoral College is that a candidate can become president even if her opponent wins more than 50 percent of the vote. Famously, Al Gore received about half a million more popular votes than George W. Bush in 2000, but lost the Electoral College – and the election — by five electoral votes.

But there’s a more insidious reason to hate the Electoral College. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia allocate all of their Electoral College votes to whichever candidate wins a majority of the state’s popular vote. In other words, if a candidate wins California by a mere 267 votes, she gets the same Electoral College boost as if she wins by 12 million votes. That seems an irreconcilable perversion of democracy.

Worse yet, partisanship and facts of geography make around 40 states “safe” for one party or the other. Today, seven months from Election Day, we already know which party will win in those states. What incentive do people there have to research candidates, to knock on doors, to miss work to stand in interminable voting lines? Three states — New York, Texas and California — are home to 85 million Americans, representing one quarter of our population. Yet there is little incentive for presidential candidates to engage there because it is a foregone conclusion how they will vote – Democratic for New York and California, Republican for Texas.

I’ll go even further and blame the Electoral College for (some) of our economic inequality. A new book analyzes the Electoral College and finds that just 10 swing states ultimately decide the election. Worse, it’s only about 10 percent of voters in those states who are truly independent. That is, 10 percent of voters in just 10 states decide the election. And those voters live in just a tiny handful of individual counties in the country.

If voters in safe states have little incentive to participate, then what incentive do candidates have to come and campaign on the issues important in those 40 states? None, in fact: In the last general election, 39 states had no visit from either a candidate or major surrogate.

We’re not even in the general election yet and I’m shocked at which major national issues aren’t getting attention. Why aren’t we talking about my least favorite policy — the mortgage interest deduction? The carried interest loophole? Infrastructure development and the gas tax? Strategic reforms to Social Security? Inclusionary zoning and rapidly rising city housing prices? Opportunity-constraining public transit? Meaningful responses to racial inequities?

Those issues share two common features. First, each contributes to income and wealth inequality. Second, I wager that they are not issues of interest in our swing counties of Hillsborough, New Hampshire, or Arapahoe, Colorado, or Fairfax, Virginia, or Hamilton, Ohio. If just 10 percent of voters in this handful of counties will decide the election, then our most prominent national leaders will spend six months on TV talking about the few issues important in these wealthier-than-average areas, whiter-than-average areas, more-suburban-than-average areas.

And that’s the way it’s been for decades. Election after election our leaders set the agenda by signaling to the nation what issues are important to talk about, which issues are urgent and deserve our attention. But ultimately they’re trying to get elected, and so they tailor that message to just a few thousand voters.

For the other 315 million Americans, this is not democracy. It’s time to get rid of the Electoral College.

Zach McDade, from Boulder, Colo., is a Masters in Public Policy Candidate at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Follow Zach on Twitter (@zmcdade).

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