Edith Rimmer, Luke Taylor and Emily Vaughan examine underlying issues in the US electoral system and their implications for the health of US democracy.
With the advent of the coronavirus, and its impact on our lives and how we access public spaces safely, the 2020 US election was bound to be unusual. The rise in postal voting – 46% of people voted by absentee or mail-in ballot – was coupled with a sharp decrease in polling places. This follows a pattern of decline throughout the past decade. Analysis from VICE News showed an overall 20% cut in polling places across the US since 2016, and that these cuts disproportionately affect “poor, young and non-white voters”.
This is key when we are looking at who votes for who and the nature of the two-party majoritarian system. An example can be found in McLennan County, Texas, which closed 44% of its polling places between 2012 to 2018, despite having a growth of 15,000 mainly Black and Latinx residents. 87% of Black voters and 66% of Latinx voters chose the Democrats in the 2020 election according to exit polls. It is not hard to see how this combination may systematically benefit the Republican Party.
Despite this increased need for postal voting, the Texas governor passed an act to reduce the number of postal voting drop-off points to one per county, which was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court. Harris County represents 2.5 million voters yet saw a reduction in the number of drop-off points from 12 to 1. Texas District Court Judge Tim Sulak declared that this ruling would “unreasonably substantially burden voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote”.
This is a worrying trend towards a culture of voter suppression where we see long queues and increased travel times, which can deter people from utilising their all-important right to vote. With the tiny margins seen in swing states across the US, and ‘the winner-takes-all’ approach, making sure all demographics within society have the ability to be heard is crucial in creating representative and fair results. The record turnout of this year is a good sign; however, we need to ensure there is equal opportunity for all to take part.
In US elections, the electorate does not directly elect the president. Each state has ‘electors’ who then vote for the state’s winning candidate. To win the presidency, a candidate must secure 270 out of a possible 538 electoral votes. However, there is no requirement for a candidate to have a majority of the popular vote. Consequently, a third of elections in the last 20 years have seen the candidate with the majority of the popular vote failing to win a majority of electoral college votes.
The 2016 election was a prime example of the disproportionate outcomes from the electoral college. Despite Hillary Clinton securing 48.5% of the popular vote, Clinton only received 227 electoral college votes, a mere 42.19%. In contrast Donald Trump secured 46.4% of the popular vote but 56.5% of the electoral college.
Further disproportionality can be seen in the voting power of states; this is an increasingly prescient issue. Take California, in which each electoral college vote represents 508,344 people compared to Wyoming in which each electoral college vote represents 142,741 people. This means that a vote in Wyoming carries nearly four times the weight of one in California.
Post-election, Donald Trump has continued his harmful rhetoric surrounding electoral legitimacy and institutions. Following the announcement of Biden’s victory, Trump intensified his unsubstantiated claims regarding voter fraud, championing the slogan “STOP THE COUNT!” to incentivise his voters, state officials and Congress to reject the result. Over the subsequent months we have seen this snowball from pressuring Georgia’s Secretary of State to “find 11,780 votes” in order for him to win the state, to facing a Senate impeachment trial for inciting violence against the US Government.
The insurrection at Capitol Hill was the culmination of a culture of disinformation and rejection of democratic values, leading to the single largest attack on democracy in recent US history. The historic second impeachment of Trump by the House of Representatives in his final days of office hopefully marks a turning point in the direction of US democracy. Joe Biden now has the monumental task of uniting a deeply polarised population and restoring the democratic deficit. Time will tell whether US democracy is beyond repair.
Note: this article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.