The United States is the only democratic country in the world where a candidate can be elected as president without earning the highest number of votes.
In the midst of competing campaigns and critical choices leading up to Election Day, one of the most common assumptions is that U.S. citizens directly select their president. However, far too many fail to fully understand that such direct selection is not our reality, for within our complex electoral system – known as the Electoral College – the will of the people does not always translate into final results. During the presidential elections of 1876, 1888, and 2000, the leader in popular votes did not claim victory, and some believe a similar scenario may take place in the near future. And so, when a candidate receives the majority of votes but is not sworn into office, we recognize a gross injustice that requires immediate and significant transformation.
In our current Election Day arrangement, citizens vote for a slate of electors – usually party leaders or officials – when they cast ballots for president. The total number of electors is 538, which is based upon the total voting membership of the U.S. Congress (435 Representatives and 100 Senators) and additional electors for the District of Colombia. The electors typically gather in their states about six weeks after the general election in order to cast ballots. Within the existing format, those from California (55), Texas (38), Florida (29), and New York (29) hold the most votes, whereas electors from Alaska, Delaware, the District of Colombia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming all tie for the least (3).
Among other things, the founders of our nation viewed the system as a way to protect the interests of smaller states, and they figured the electors would be educated and connected citizens with enhanced insights to select national leaders. At the time of its creation the Electoral College was viewed as necessary due to poor communication across state boundaries, general lack of literacy, and a nationwide scarcity of voter information. But not only is the electoral system thoroughly out of date, but it is also counter to foundational democratic values and basic theological affirmations.
While contemporary proponents of the Electoral College argue for its importance as a distinguishing feature of federalism in the United States, others righty reveal its flawed nature within our larger democratic pledge for equality. In other words, when a popular vote does not directly determine the outcome on an election, the striking consequence is that each vote is not equal, thus each individual voter is also not equal. And so, because of the irrelevance of our national popular vote, there is a disproportionate focus on the so-called swing states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin), which in turn provides an unbalanced amount of attention (and unjust level of power) in the hands of a minority at the expense of the majority.
Those of marginal political persuasions that are significantly outnumbered in their state of residence – such as non-Republicans in Texas or non-Democrats in New York – often refuse to participate due to the perception of a meaningless vote. So the Electoral College is not only far past its historical usefulness, but it is also deeply disingenuous due to the disconnection between our values and current general election process.
In addition to the political shortcomings of our Electoral College, it can also be viewed as theologically damaged, as people of faith should be troubled to participate within a system that offers disproportionate levels of power and fails to represent the collective will of a popular electorate. As stated within various affirmations of faith, human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, which in turn leads to a basic level of dignity that transcends various labels, classifications, and distinctions. While much attention has been given to voter equality within various gender and racial demographics, we have yet to reform an Electoral College that continues to discriminate and disenfranchise various citizens every four years. And so, not only is our current electoral process contrary to democratic values, but it is also counter to basic theological affirmations, thus it should be reformed as a response to God’s grace and public expression of personal faith.
In a country that repeatedly states the importance of democratic equality, and in light of our theological affirmations of human dignity and sacred value, the Electoral College is not acceptable and thus requires immediate and dramatic transformation. While some can provide numerous reasons for keeping the system as it is, and one recognizes the various logistical steps and financial costs needed for such reforms, as responsible citizens we cannot continue within a configuration that is contrary to the values of our democracy, and as people of faith we should not support a structure that is counter to our core theological convictions. And so, while attempts to reform the Electoral College have appeared frequently in past years, the time is upon us for a more serious and sustained effort, regardless of the results on our upcoming Election Day. Basically, it is time for the Electoral College to graduate.
Within our democracy, a voter in Alabama should have the same influence as one in New Mexico, and those who visit the polls in Wisconsin should have the same power as those who do the same in California, Texas, or New York. As the president of the United States should be elected by the people and for the people, and because our current system does not guarantee such results, the time is upon us to ensure that the Electoral College is reformed or removed before further damage is done. As those who believe in the equal access of political participation, and as people of faith that affirm the sacred value of all human beings, we should demand a fair and balanced electoral system, and we should not settle for anything less.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, Wis.), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).