Letters From an American: November 3, 2020Roundup
tags: Thomas Jefferson, Electoral College, Donald Trump, 2020 Election
Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History at Boston College and author most recently of How the South Won the Civil War.
Tonight, we wait, as returns from this year’s election are about what we expected. In-person ballots cast today are weighted toward Trump, while the uncounted mail-in and early ballots are expected to favor Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Tonight, few states except the rock-solid Democratic or Republican states have yet been called by the Associated Press.
This is the scenario we all foresaw. Tonight, the election returns look relatively good for Trump, which is why he talked about claiming a victory at the end of election night. This is the so-called “red mirage.” But as the mail-in ballots get counted, everyone expects the Democratic numbers to climb fast and far.
As they do, the Trump team will fight every single ballot. They will try to claim that counting the mail-in ballots is “fraud,” or that Democrats are “stealing” the election when, in fact, election officials are simply counting all the ballots.
Remember that no one is arguing that Trump will win the popular vote. He wants to win in the Electoral College.
The problem of voter suppression is compounded by the misuse of the Electoral College. The Framers originally designed delegates to the Electoral College to vote according to districts within states, so that states would split their electoral votes, making them roughly proportional to a candidate’s support. That system changed in 1800, after Thomas Jefferson recognized that he would have a better chance of winning the presidency if the delegates of his own home state, Virginia, voted as a bloc rather than by district. He convinced them to do it. Quickly, other state officials recognized that the “winner-take-all” system meant they must do the same or their own preferred candidate would never win. Thus, our non-proportional system was born, and it so horrified James Madison and Alexander Hamilton that both wanted constitutional amendments to switch the system back.
Democracy took another hit from that system in 1929. The 1920 census showed that the weight of the nation’s demographics was moving to cities, which were controlled by Democrats, so the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives refused to reapportion representation after that census. Reapportioning the House would have cost many of them their seats. Rather than permitting the number of representatives to grow along with population, Congress then capped the size of the House at 435. Since then, the average size of a congressional district has tripled. This gives smaller states a huge advantage in the Electoral College, in which each state gets a number of votes equal to the number of its senators and representatives.
These injuries to our system have saddled us with an Electoral College that permits a minority to tyrannize over the majority. That systemic advantage is unsustainable in a democracy. One or the other will have to give.