The United States aspires to be a model of democracy for the world, but our system of selecting a president is an affront to the principle of "one person, one vote." It is well past time that we scrapped the Electoral College in favor of direct election of the president of the United States by the people of the United States.
When we go to the polls in two weeks, we will not be voting directly for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Even though our ballots will have those names on them, we'll actually be voting for a group of "electors" equal to the number of senators and representatives from our state. Those electors are party loyalists who are expected, but not required, to vote for the candidate of their party.
The best thing that can be said of our Electoral College system is that the candidate who wins the presidency is usually the one who gets the most votes on Election Day. Usually, but not always.
On three occasions -- most recently in 2000 -- the candidate who got the most votes on Election Day lost in the Electoral College, and lost the election. That could happen again this year if, as some polls predict, Mitt Romney gets the most votes on Election Day, but Barack Obama squeaks out narrow victories in large electoral vote-rich swing states like Ohio.
Under our system, every vote cast is not of equal value. Wyoming, for example, has a population of only 568,158. Because every state gets at least one House representative and two senators, Wyoming gets three Electoral College votes -- or one vote for every 189,386 people. New York, by contrast, has a population of 19,378,104, and gets 29 Electoral College votes -- one vote for every 668,210 people. The vote of a citizen of Wyoming is worth three times the vote of a citizen of New York.
Inequity was built into the Electoral College from the beginning. Some founders from smaller states worried that with a direct popular vote, a person could win the presidency by ignoring small states and winning a lot of votes in a few big states. Some founders from the South worried that Northerners' votes would always outnumber Southerners' votes, because most of the free population of the country lived in the North. The Electoral College addressed both concerns. The smaller states would have greater weight than their numbers, and slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a free person, thus boosting the number of Southern states' electors. The compromises were meant to ensure a more nationally representative president.
Today, however, it is not the small states or the Southern states, but the "safe" ones -- the vast majority of states -- that get ignored.
All states except two choose their electors on a winner-take-all basis. A presidential candidate who wins New York by a margin of just one vote gets all 29 electoral votes; the opponent gets zero. Big states like New York and small states like Wyoming can both be ignored by campaigns because they are considered safely Democratic or safely Republican.
To sum up: The winner of the popular vote can lose the electoral vote and lose the election; the votes of people in larger states count for less than those in smaller states; the safe states are ignored while a small number of Americans in swing states get disproportionate attention; and the minority party voters in a state have no influence due to the winner-take-all rules. Meanwhile, the original reasons for adopting the Electoral College have become archaic.
The Electoral College system is laid out in the Constitution, and amending the Constitution is a laborious task: Two-thirds of each house of Congress has to agree, and then three-quarters of the state legislatures -- 38 of them -- would have to, too.
In recent elections, only a handful of our states have been battlegrounds. So more than 38 states have an incentive to eliminate the Electoral College, and make a change that polls show the public has supported for years. If Romney wins the popular vote and loses the electoral vote this year, then both parties will have suffered recent similar Electoral College defeats. That will provide both with the reason to push for change. They should do so, and eliminate the continuing risk that the president of the United States might be the person who lost on Election Day.
Americans should be able to vote directly for the president. One person, one vote. Period.
SUNY Old Westbury. Thomas Lilly Jr. is assistant professor of politics, economics, and law, and coordinator of the Industrial and Labor Relations Program at SUNY Old Westbury.