Even though the final outcome of the United States’ presidential elections is not yet clear, the recent vote produced an undeniable loser, which is the American electoral system. While we wait for the data on incredibly matched votes in a handful of “contending states”, it is already evident that, across the country, Joe Biden obtained at least two million more votes than Donald Trump.
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The United States electoral system has two peculiar characteristics that contribute extraordinarily to the confusion we are witnessing. The first is the electoral college, which means that the president is not elected with popular votes – as in almost all other democracies -, but that the winner of the vote in each state receives the “electoral votes” of that state. The purpose is to ensure that the president has relatively broad support in the country’s geography, but it may happen that the popular votes and those of the electoral college do not coincide. If Trump wins, it would be the third occasion that the winner of the popular vote does not reach the presidency.
In addition, the US Constitution leaves the management of elections in the hands of each state, which explains why we already know the definitive results of some and it is possible that we will only know the results of others within a few days. In some states, ballots sent by post may begin to be counted when they arrive in the preceding days, while in others they may only begin to be cleared on election day. Some states make it easy to vote and others make it more difficult. There are big differences even between counties: in some parts of Wisconsin, thousands of erroneously printed ballots have caused confusion. Local officials can arbitrarily reduce the number of polling stations and the dates when people can go to vote. The queues to vote in poor neighborhoods are almost always longer than in wealthier districts. Some states have been voting by mail for years and others are voting for the first time.
The combination of these two systems – the counting of votes state by state and the local control of elections – makes the election of the leader of the most powerful country on earth dependent on a few thousand votes in some states, the issue and counting of which are subject to errors and manipulation. Consequently, whoever wins, voters will have serious doubts about the legitimacy of the result. During these pandemic months, the Democratic Party asked many of its supporters to vote by mail for health reasons, and in three key states – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – ballots could only begin to be counted on November 3, which it means that many votes (and in all likelihood, mostly Democratic votes) are still being counted and will only be completely tabulated within several days. This served as an excuse for Trump to question his legitimacy. On November 4, around two-thirty in the morning – local time – the president declared: “The truth, we won … We want the votes to be interrupted. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve already won ”.
Even a commentator for Fox News, Trump’s favorite broadcaster, criticized his words and called them a dangerous attempt to destroy the democratic system. “We are in an enormously flammable situation and the president has just thrown a match at her,” said Chris Wallace. “He didn’t win in those states”.
It was a typical Trump move. There was no one voting. What was happening was that legally cast votes were being counted, in many cases because the Republican lawmakers in the states in question had not let them be counted before. At the same time, as in some states voting by mail is a novelty and instructions are sometimes confusing, it would be necessary to annul tens of thousands of votes, perhaps hundreds of thousands. Some states, which do the counting quickly, allow voters who make mistakes when filling out their ballots – even writing with ink of an inappropriate color – to “correct” them. Others do not. In Georgia and North Carolina, two crucial states where counting is still being done, ballots sent by mail are twice as likely to be rejected if they are from black voters than from white voters.
“The American system is a mixture of state and local authorities,” political scientist Larry Diamond wrote recently. “Almost all positions are held by serious professionals, but state assemblies and elected secretaries can be partisans and cast doubt on their impartiality. No other advanced democracy is so far removed from contemporary democratic norms of justice, neutrality and rationality in its national election management system ”.
Local control of the elections was an invitation to manipulation by the ruling party. The US modifies its electoral map every 10 years, when the national census is taken. Republicans are aware of its importance and have tried unthinkably to win the local elections in 2010, midterm elections, in which participation is often low. In this way they were able to remake the electoral map of numerous important states through the so-called gerrymandering, which consists of redesigning the electoral map to concentrate the opposition in some constituencies and spread its own followers. In other words, it is possible to outline districts in which Democrats make up 70% of the electorate in some places and Republicans are 55% in the rest of the state.
Democratic voters are slightly more numerous than Republicans in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Michigan; still, thanks to gerrymandering, Republicans won 13 of 18 Pennsylvania seats in Congress, 9 of 13 in North Carolina and 9 of 14 in Michigan. Many Republican states have reduced the number of polling stations, passed restrictive laws to identify voters, and eliminated less frequent voters from the census lists, as well as other tactics to reduce participation, especially in minority areas that tend to vote for Democrats. The measures were ratified by a conservative Supreme Court, which is also a product of that system by which the minority rules. Democrats won popular votes in six of the last seven presidential elections (not including 2020), and meanwhile, six of the nine Supreme Court magistrates are Republican nominations.
As Diamond points out, the United States Constitution, which is the oldest in force in world democracies, desperately needs to be updated. It is clear that the electoral system also needs a renovation to guarantee a certain degree of justice, uniformity and legitimacy. But it is difficult for such a divided country to be able to create the political consensus needed to undertake major reforms.
Alexander Stille directs the political journalism program at Columbia University in New York