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All votes are equal, but some votes are more equal than others

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NOVEMBER 02, 2020

Tucked away in the Bighorn Basin, hidden beneath the shadows of the state’s northern foothills, lies the town of Ten Sleep, Wyoming. Although located along a highway, the town is home to just a handful of houses, a few churches and a brewery. A large part of the population — just more than 200 — is involved in cattle ranching, unsurprising in a state that is home to more than twice as many cows as people.

One thousand, one hundred and forty miles away from Ten Sleep, Wyoming, lies Berkeley, California, a stronghold for progressive politics. After the turmoil of the past several months, in which protests against racial injustice lined the streets and Bay Area residents contended with extreme wildfire danger, Berkeley residents are begging to be heard by their representatives, participating in early voting at record high rates and facilitating voter registration campaigns. The energy is palpable in the air, and the entire city seems to be holding its breath.

Progressive voters in Berkeley have reason to be concerned: The Electoral College stacks the odds against American city dwellers. Under the Electoral College, each state receives a certain number of electoral votes, delegated roughly by population. Most states use a winner-take-all system, meaning that a candidate winning by 1% will still receive all of the state’s electoral votes. But, by not delegating electoral votes solely on the basis of population, the system gives disproportionate influence to small states and limits the political influence of highly populated ones. Consequently, a voter in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, carries more than three times the electorate power as one in Berkeley. Even under our city lights, Californians feel invisible, with each of our nearly 40 million residents — 12% of the population of the United States — represented by 55 electoral votes. 

Proponents of the Electoral College claim that it exists to protect the interests of small states, but, when we look at the full origin story, the picture gets uglier. Framers of the U.S. Constitution from Southern states realized that a popular vote would give more power to Northern states, so they pushed for the indirect election of the president. The Electoral College is a living relic of slavery, and it continues to dilute the power of Black voters today.

Donald Trump sits as the poster child for the system, winning the presidency through the Electoral College after a landslide defeat of nearly 3 million votes nationally in the 2016 presidential election. This is not a fluke: A 2019 study revealed that Republicans candidates who lose the popular vote still have a 62% chance of winning the Electoral College. 

Not only does the Electoral College steer the country away from making bold change and enacting progressive policies, such as universal health care and criminal justice reform, it also pulls attention away from the urgency of climate change, an issue that Californians are now experiencing firsthand, in large numbers. The wildfires ravaging the state threaten our homes, health and lives. And yet, candidates on both sides of the aisle disproportionately spend their time and resources in swing states, rarely crossing the “blue line” that separates the West Coast from the rest of the country. California voters no longer have the luxury of ignoring the climate crisis. But the electoral power of states led by climate change deniers might drown out Californians’ urgent pleas for change. Time is rapidly slipping through our fingertips as we try to save our planet and protect our people. The Electoral College keeps progress at a standstill.

While the needs of urban voters differ from those of rural voters, this disparity has already been addressed through the Senate and House of Representatives. Voters in small communities such as Ten Sleep can advocate for regional issues in their congressional elections, where small-scale governance allows communities to voice their concerns and hold their elected officials accountable. The imbalance between small and large states will only become worse as time goes on and more Americans move to cities. The United States is rapidly urbanizing, and it’s time for our elections to catch up. 

Our democracy teeters on an outdated election system. Until this is corrected, our votes will never be truly equal.

Contact Sarah Siegel at [email protected].

NOVEMBER 05, 2020