President Trump and President George W. Bush won the electoral vote during the election, but not the popular vote. How does the electoral college work?


Our democracy is great! It is the best 1787 had to offer. Maybe we could do better now?

The endless election is finally over. And ultimately democracy prevailed. Barring some unimaginably potent Trumpian intervention, Joe Biden will become America’s 46th president. That does not mean the nation should rest easy. Four years of chaos culminating with Donald Trump refusing to concede have laid bare the fragility of our republic.

America’s reputation as a model democracy notwithstanding, we forced people to wait hours for the privilege to vote. We allowed the White House to cripple the post office in service to a blatantly political agenda. We permitted rampant voter suppression. And we stood impotently by as the president labored to undermine our election. Shame on us! And kudos to those stalwart citizens who weathered a gauntlet of obstacles and managed to vote anyway. Many ended this internationally embarrassing ordeal dancing in the streets to the beat of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.” 

The systematic flaws of the Senate and the Electoral College

Homegrown politicians deliberately created those obstacles and could presumably ensure they don’t defile future elections. But other threats to our democracy are not so simply dealt with. Why was Trump able to stack the Supreme Court and the federal bench with jurists selected more for ideological rigidity than competence? Because the Senate allowed him to do so. And why would the Senate do such a thing? Because the Senate itself is fundamentally unrepresentative of the society on whose behalf it supposedly acts. America’s founders, for all their brilliance, could not have foreseen how badly their carefully designed Senate would age.

Since every state has the same number of Senators, small states exercise such disproportionate power that politicians representing roughly one-sixth of the population control federal appointments. That perhaps made sense when the Constitution was crafted. Virginia was then the largest state. Excluding its enslaved population, it was only nine times the size of Delaware, the smallest. Now California is the largest; and it is nearly seventy times the size of Wyoming, the smallest. The entire country then comprised fewer than four million residents; now it contains more than 300 million. Because the Senate is effectively controlled by small, unrepresentative states, it is incapable of fairly representing our massive and diverse population.

President-elect Joe Biden on Nov. 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

The Senate is not our only outdated Constitutional relic. The founders assumed the Electoral College would be made up of brilliant men of impeccable character who would carefully vet the nation’s most competent white men and choose the perfect leader. No one foresaw it becoming the province of anonymous functionaries sworn to blindly support the choice of their party. 

The 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, mandated separate ballots for selecting the president and vice president; but no amendment could modernize the Electoral College enough to make it worth saving. Indeed, the most significant innovation — the adoption by all but two states of winner take all systems for choosing electors — only made things worse.

Flaws of the Electoral College: States will eventually abolish the Electoral College. Here’s why (and how).

In the past, the Electoral College choice rarely conflicted with the popular vote. Prior to 2000, that had only happened twice. In 1888, Benjamin Harrison defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland. And in 1876, thanks to a series of backroom maneuvers, Rutherford Hayes prevailed over Samuel Tilden. The notorious Compromise of 1877 awarded disputed votes to Hayes in return for the withdrawal of federal troops from the post-Civil War South, effectively ending Reconstruction along with the hope of black equality. 

We are barely a fifth of the way into the 21st Century, yet we have already endured twoelections in which the popular loser vote became president. By the grace of God, we avoided such a circumstance this time around, even though Trump (who lost by more than 4 million votes) initially appeared within striking distance of an Electoral College victory.

Fostering racial polarization

The system that allows such possibilities not only insults the very notion of democracy but fosters racial polarization. In a 1996 Yale Law Journal article, Matthew Hoffman observed that many black voters were effectively excluded from the system because their voting preferences differed from those of the white majority. That reality is substantially unchanged. 57% of black Americans live in the South. Of the 106 counties in which blacks are in the majority, all but one are in southern states. Yet none of those states has a black majority. Blacks in those states tend to vote “blue,” whereas most whites vote “red” — which means that, generally speaking, all those electoral votes go to Republicans. 

It is because of such racialized voting that it still makes political sense for the Republican party to position itself as the party of white grievance, even if that tears the country apart. The apparent flipping of Georgia might represent a change in that dynamic, and might even foreshadow a time when such a system favors ethnic minorities (especially when joined by progressive whites and Latinos); but Georgia and Virginia, at this point, are exceptions, not the rule.

2020 Election: Joe Biden, democracy and decency win a presidential election for the ages

Prior to the election, Biden promised to create a bipartisan commission to look into “how to reform the court system because it’s getting out of whack.”That’s a good idea. But even if Biden could fix the courts (which it is difficult to see him doing without a Senate majority) that alone would not get our democracy on track. We instead need to reexamine the structure of our democracy from top to bottom and devise a plan to adapt it to the modern world. That is probably best done not by a presidential commission but a body of distinguished and influential Americans determinedly working the problem as if America’s future hung in the balance. I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen. But unless we do something, we are forever stuck with the best system 1787 had to offer to a small country of idealistic slave-holding folk deemed too ignorant to directly govern themselves.

Ellis Cose is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author  of “The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America” published by Amistad in September. Follow Cose on Twitter: @EllisCose


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