The Problem with Our Presidential Elections: Our Votes Are Not Equal
At the core of democracy lies a simple principle—that all votes should count equally. Whether you’re white or black, rich or poor, from Rapid City, SD or Cedar Rapids, IA, your vote should count the same as the vote of anyone else. “One person, one vote!”
This principle is violated by the way we elect our president. Because of the winner-take-all system of allocating Electoral College votes, the only votes that count are those for the person who wins the state in which they were cast. In 2016, this resulted in over 52 million votes being ignored in the presidential election – that is hardly being counted equally.
All but two states (Maine & Nebraska) assign all their Electoral College votes to the winner of the popular vote in that state—regardless of the margin of victory. For example, in the last election:
- Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by just 45,000 votes in Minnesota, winning 46.4% to 44.9%. Yet she got 100% of Minnesota’s 10 Electoral College votes, while Trump got zero.
- In Michigan, Trump beat Clinton by just 10,000 votes, but he got every single one of their 16 Electoral College votes, while she got zero.
This is the consequence of winner-take-all: the votes for president of millions of U.S. citizens get discarded, simply because they are not in the majority in a particular state.
The Results of This Inequality Undermine Our Republic
States originally adopted winner-take-all because it amplified the power of their votes. But once (practically) every other state had embraced winner-take-all, that effect was nullified, and presidential campaigns shifted their focus. Under winner-take-all, the only states in which it makes any sense for a presidential candidate to campaign are “battleground states”— states in which the popular vote can be expected to be so close that one side has a real chance to beat the other.
- Two-thirds of campaign events happened in just six battleground states—Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Michigan.
- Four battleground states—Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania—saw 71% of campaign ad spending and 57% of candidate appearances.
- The 14 battleground states saw 99% of ad spending and 95% of candidate campaign stops.
The consequence of this concentration for our democracy is profound. To get elected president, candidates must persuade not a majority of American voters, but a majority of voters in only 14 states.
Voters in battleground states tend to be whiter and older than Americans generally, so presidential platforms are skewed towards those populations. The issues that matter to younger Americans, and to people of color, are thus largely invisible (or hidden) in battleground campaigns. Winner-take-all in effect outsources the selection of the president to a fraction of America’s voters (35% in 2016)—a fraction that does not in any sense represent the majority of America.
Even worse, these rules increase the probability of a “minority president”—a president who loses the popular vote, yet wins in the Electoral College. Two of our last three presidents have taken office after losing the popular vote, and that probability will likely increase over time.
This Inequality is Not in Our Constitution
Contrary to what most people might think, the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes is not in the Constitution. It was adopted by 48 states to give themselves more power in the presidential election.
It is time for the Supreme Court to end it. The Constitution, through the Electoral College, does create some inherent inequality. But that is no justification for allowing the states to create even more—especially when the consequence of that inequality is to systematically skew the focus of presidential campaigns. There is no good reason for this inequality. There is no democratic justification for it. It has made our presidential elections the least democratic of all our elections.
Here's Our Plan to Fix This Problem
Equal Votes is a crowdfunded legal challenge to the winner-take-all method for allocating Electoral College votes. Based on the “one person, one vote” principle already articulated by the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, we believe the winner-take-all system is unconstitutional—it is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause that ensures all of us, and all of our votes, must be treated equally under the law.
The claim we will make throughout this legal case is that by allocating their Electoral College votes according to winner-take-all, these states effectively discard the votes of United States citizens in the only meaningful count for electing the president—in the Electoral College. We will ask those courts to apply the principle of “one person, one vote” to the winner-take-all system. Our goal is to have our case heard in time for the 2020 election.
We’re pulling together an all-star legal team, and together we’re planning to file suit in two courts on behalf of real voters affected by this system. We’re in the process of identifying plaintiffs whose votes for president are effectively discarded because the other party’s candidate for president always, consistently, wins in their state.
To get this campaign off the ground, we need your support. We have secured an initial commitment of pro bono legal work to enable us to launch this litigation project. But we will need to raise much more over the life of the litigation in order to win this case. Join us in this fight by contributing whatever you can, and by volunteering to help in whatever way you believe is best.
The most important part of this fight will come from the many people we hope to rally to equality: “one person, one vote.” It’s not just a principle of a fair democracy—it must also be the law.