Tamer Ibrahim, Professor of Bioengineering, at University of Pittsburgh discusses his prior and recent perspectives of the American presidential elections as a US immigrant. He conjectures that 21st century Americans, like democracy, but prefer and enjoy even more the entertainment of competitive presidential elections. A democracy that results in a monopoly is not an American trait and is a detriment to the election enterprise. There is no thrill or sustainable voter engagement when the growing collective liberal majority always wins. Using a detailed, but mathematically simple, analysis, he demonstrates that the electoral college system has seemingly morphed into the political equivalent of a salary cap in professional sports in order to keep our presidential elections competitive and less predictable. The casualty is having a 21st-century America using an election system that brings together all types of social injustices; the white/male/heterosexual/US-born votes are worth more than the colored/female/LGBTQ/immigrant votes. He proposes a more equitable electoral college system and argues that the innovation of the American election enterprise will always make our elections competitive and less predictable. ..
To a U.S. immigrant who grew up (1972-1992) under a de facto dictatorship where election fraud and accepted discrimination were a societal norm, the concepts of fair and transparent elections, “All men are created equal,” and “equal opportunity …” were unfamiliar. They became a substitute of justice for the customary sense of helplessness. I felt privileged as well as undeserving: unlike US-born Americans, my parents and grandparents had not paid their dues for me to be a part of this democratic utopia.
Witnessing the impact of the electoral college system on our democracy over the last two decades, however, has brought back 30-year-old memories that became entangled with current realities. To concisely summon it, I find the recent presidential elections to be so “un-American” based on how I viewed our society for a few years after I immigrated, yet more Americana based on my current view.
Starting with the 2000 Bush-Gore election, it seems that exhilaration has become a trademark of our presidential elections. Personally, following TV coverage on election nights has become as exciting as watching my alma mater, in which I was enrolled for ten consecutive years, play in the College Football National Championship. Similar to the most electrifying modern-day sports competition, football, America invented its unique and thrilling way of electing its presidents, the electoral college system. Its implementation has recently resulted in captivating spectacles before, during, and after the elections. It appears as if our founding fathers knew how to create “must-see TV” 200 plus years before it happened.
By only focusing on the current assigned number of electoral votes for each state, which is based on 2010 census populations, the math behind the distribution of the votes is simple. All of the electoral votes in each state, except for 2 (Group A), are awarded one presidential ticket, the one that wins the majority of votes in that state. Three votes are allocated to the eight least populated (under 1 million population based on the 2010 census) states/districts (Group B). For any of the other 41 states (Group C), and after assigning the first three electoral votes to about the first million of its population, the number of assigned votes, to a large extent, becomes proportional to its remaining population.
When compared to Group C, the electoral vote allocation for states/districts in Group B is significantly inflated. For instance, Colorado’s ratio of millions of people compared to electoral votes is about 5 to 9 while DC’s is about 0.6 to 3; Colorado’s population is about 8 times that of DC, yet its electoral vote allocation is only 3 times more. Even within Group C, the electoral vote allocation is disproportionate, consistently rewarding states with lower populations. A state with about 1.6 million people – such as Idaho – receives 4 electoral votes while a state with about 9.9 million people – like Michigan – receives 16; Michigan’s population is about 6.3 times that of Idaho, yet its electoral vote allocation is only 4 times more. California’s population is about 3.8 times that of Michigan, yet its electoral vote allocation is only 3.4 times more (55). The trend is clear; a larger state is always electorally disadvantaged when compared to a smaller state.
Consequentially, for presidential candidates that are behind in the national polls, the catch-up campaign strategy is to win as many states – with inflated electoral vote allocation – as possible. Because the Republican candidates have masterfully done that in the last eight presidential elections, the Democratic Party, in relation to the popular vote, has had a considerable electoral vote disadvantage, which is most likely to amplify over time.
A. With the exception of the 1992 Clinton-Bush election, which Bill Clinton won handily in terms of popular and electoral votes, five of the eight states/districts in Group B consistently voted red while three voted blue. Thus, states with the most inflated electoral vote allocation have generally favored the Republication candidates.
B. The most-populated states, which currently hold 20 or more electoral votes and are most disadvantaged in terms of electoral-vote allocation, typically voted blue by an electoral vote ratio of more than 2 to 1: Pennsylvania (20): 7x, Illinois (20): 8x, Florida (29): 3x, New York (29): 8x, Texas (38): 0x, and California (55): 8x. Thus, states with the most deflated electoral vote allocation have generally favored the Democratic candidates.
C. As the populations of red-leaning Florida and solid-red Texas are rapidly growing with migrants from the Rust Belt’s highly-populated and mostly-blue states ,their electoral vote allocations are significantly, yet justifiably, increasing at the expense of the Rust Belt’s counterparts. The same phenomenon does not necessarily hold true with states that have 4-9 assigned electoral votes and declining population trends (mostly red) because the current system allows their electoral vote allocations to be perpetually inflated. Using the recently released electoral vote allocation – based on the 2020 census –, and assuming the presidential voting trends of the impacted states to continue, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates will net gain and lose three electoral votes, respectively, going forward. Thus, future inflated/deflated electoral vote allocations will continue to favor the Republican candidates going forward.
It is not a surprise that in the last eight elections, the Republican ticket won the popular majority once yet the electoral majority three times. Given our societal changes, census patterns, and the current system for determining electoral vote allocation, it appears that the Democratic presidential ticket needs a considerable, growing-with-time, popular-vote advantage to be competitive for the electoral majority. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had about 3 million votes more than Donald Trump, yet she lost the electoral majority by a considerable margin. In 2020, Joe Biden won the electoral majority with, ironically, an identical margin to how Clinton lost it, yet he had about 7 million votes more than Trump.
Outcomes: Based on the current rules of the electoral college system and the results of the recent presidential elections, I have concluded the following paradoxes.
Explicit: Winning the White House is not a popularity contest; it is about strategy.
Implicit: A vote is worth more in a less populated state than in a more populated state. Therefore, the election in itself is not, to use Trump’s term, “rigged,” but the electoral college system potentially is against Californians, Texans, New Yorkers, Floridians, Illinoisans, Pennsylvanians, etc…, in that order.
Distressing: We promote social equality, but on average, the red presidential vote is currently worth more than the blue one. Consequently, one could infer that the white/male/heterosexual/US-born votes are worth more than the colored/female/LGBTQ/immigrant votes. It appears that 21st-century America is using a presidential election system that brings together all types of social injustices.
Presumptions: Except for the Bush-Gore election, if a popular vote system were used over the last four decades, the results of our presidential elections would have been highly predictable. Consider not going through and/or reminiscing over the following recent events that became relevant and consequential only because of the electoral college system:
Not so exciting! Therefore, I am conjecturing that we, 21st century Americans, like democracy, but prefer and enjoy even more the entertainment of competitive elections.
A democracy that results in a monopoly is not an American trait and is a detriment to the election enterprise. There is no thrill or sustainable voter engagement when the growing collective liberal majority always wins; even the liberals would agree. In a demagogic statement, Trump once said “We’re going to win so much, you may even get tired of winning!” He is right about the “tired of winning” aspect. In America, we impose a salary cap in professional sports for this exact reason. I do not believe this was our founding fathers’ intention, but the electoral college system has seemingly morphed into a “salary cap” in the political arena because of its inadequate rules of vote allocation. It has evened the playing field by fictitiously increasing and/or decreasing the impact of certain votes on the election outcome: disenfranchising the voters of the winning party in the more populated states while overweighting the voters of the winning party in the less populated states. In a very subtle manner, the electoral college system is successfully manipulating a well-defined and noncontroversial political process, democracy.
I want to emphasize that besides creating close elections, and subsequent thrill and entertainment, the electoral college system has some merits. It makes each one of us occasionally identify with election “winners,” even when they don’t democratically win; it keeps the voters of both parties always engaged. It also seems to be reasonably accurate in fractionating the executive power, which is binary and held by the majority in a democracy, over time; based on the US population, is the ratio of republicans to democrats, using whole numbers adding up to 8 (last 8 presidential elections), 3 to 5?
But the benefits of the current implementation of the electoral college system do not outweigh its main shortcoming, the assault on democracy and social justice. Its bias, even if it were to periodically flip between both parties, is not justified. The historical reasoning behind its rules can not sanction social inequality.
The idea of a presidential election system solely based on the country’s popular vote has been exhaustively analyzed. Besides many states’ demands to have their own specific voting laws and results – Georgia is a clear example -, I realize that it presents a nightmarish scenario for conventional candidates/campaigns. For example, energizing the Republican voters in California and the Democratic voters in Alabama would become as important as energizing the voters in recently contested Pennsylvania. A practical and intermediate solution, nonetheless, is to increase the total number of electoral votes and then accurately allocate them based on the population of each state or district. This approach would eliminate the unfair advantage bestowed on the less populated states, and the subsequent vote disenfranchisement experienced in the more populated states; it would make the electoral vote “created equal.” Further, it would also maintain the autonomy of, and the practice of democracy within, each state.
Based on my calculations, the new implementation of the electoral college system would have reversed the outcome of the Bush-Gore election and diminished the 2016 electoral vote difference, thus debunking Trump’s claim of a “landslide” victory. I believe these outcomes would have aligned more with then America’s presidential choices than what actually happened, and still kept the elections competitive; and therefore, thrilling and entertaining.
Ultimately, however, a presidential election system, largely based on the popular vote, is the only approach that can eliminate the systemic vote disenfranchisement. I could argue that the logistical difficulties associated with such a system will be substantially mitigated over time; it is not outlandish to assume that the absolute majority of post-pandemic, accustomed-to-virtual-meetings and born-after-1970 Americans will not need to physically attend campaign rallies to get excited about voting for their candidate. Thus, it will not be difficult for campaigns to energize their potential voters remotely, they can take a cue from Biden campaigning from “his basement,” according to Trump, but still managing to win the popular and electoral majority by a considerable margin.
As with other societal issues, I believe the presidential elections are currently being influenced by two of our country’s essential, yet competing at times, core principles.
The first is socialistic in nature: achieving equality. In this case, it is done through democracy, albeit imperfect, that is, the electoral college system. This core principle represented my whole, yet incomplete, view of Americana through the Bush-Gore election.
The second is capitalistic in nature: taking advantage of inefficiencies which, in many situations, are either deliberately implemented or intentionally overlooked, to create an edge. In this case, the inefficiencies are a result of the electoral college system’s inadequate allocation rules, and the edge is extenuated through the significant outnumbering of the opponent’s inflated electoral votes. This core principle was missing from my prior view. If I had a full grasp of it during the Bush-Gore election, the is-this-America’s-version-of-systemic-yet-very-subtle-political-corruption would have been my conundrum as a young and relatively new immigrant.
I think our recent presidential elections have become brazenly dependent on the second principle so much that it makes achieving the first principle improbable. The majority of Republicans and Democrats would presumably agree that, regardless of how creative a presidential campaign can be, outnumbering an opponent by about 3 million popular votes but still losing the electoral majority by 74 – out of 538 – electoral votes is both unreasonable and unjustified.
Except for a) many current Republican politicians and b) legislators, Republicans, and Democrats, of the lowest populated states, I believe a large majority of Americans if properly informed of the current allocation rules, and states’ legislators would support a change in favor of a more equitable electoral college system. Therefore, we need to unhesitatingly mount enough political pressure on our elected officials to reach across the aisle and change the rules of allocation such that any electoral vote is “created equal,” regardless of which state it comes from. It will not be hard for them to engrave a political legacy: the bar is not high when the current standard has just allowed the identical electoral majority to be obtained by candidates with about 3 million less, and 7 million more, votes than their opponents, in the two recent elections. With a completed 2020 census, the path is clear to swiftly make the proposed changes.
An electoral college system, with fair and accurate allocation of its votes, can be an intermediate milestone towards another presidential election mechanism where the American, as opposed to electoral, the vote is “created equal,” regardless of where it comes from and whom it represents. Based on our current political climate, however, a popular vote-based presidential election mechanism is realistically multiple decades away from fulfillment.
As far as the American election enterprise – media companies, technology conglomerates, and political campaigns and parties – goes, there is no need to be alarmed: its unmatched innovation will always make our elections expeditiously evolve to stay competitive and less predictable. The thrill and entertainment will remain intact, and the consumers – all of us – will continue to be glued to all types of media outlets before, during, and after the elections.
Tamer Ibrahim, Ph.D., is a Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the Principal Investigator of NIH research and training programs that focus on human neuroimaging and the applications of bioengineering in psychiatry.
Suggested Citation: Tamer Ibrahim, Here is How America’s Subtle Alterations to Democracy and Social Justice Avoid Political Monopolies, JURIST – Academic Commentary, May 03, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/05/tamer-ibrahim-vote-equality/.
This article was prepared for publication by Vishwajeet Deshmukh, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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