The final outcome of Tuesday’s presidential election will, in all likelihood, come down to a few thousand votes in a handful of Midwestern states. Given the broader context of economic hardship and mass death, it’s a state of affairs that deserves to see heads roll at Democratic national headquarters, regardless of whether Joe Biden ultimately squeaks out a victory in the Electoral College. The polling industry, which largely failed to predict a close race, is due for a similar reckoning.
The fact remains that, under a less absurd system, there would be considerably less suspense. At the time of writing, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by more than 2 million votes nationwide — making the possibility that the president will carry the popular vote or pass the 50 percent threshold slim to none. As has been endlessly pointed out for the past four years, Donald Trump received millions fewer votes in 2016 and still carried the day, thanks to the eighteenth-century anachronism of the Electoral College — which remains his only potential path to victory this week.
From its beginning, the entire Trump presidency has drawn its legitimacy from a system that permits election to the country’s highest executive office with a minority of actual votes. Compounding this, the Electoral College inevitably encourages campaigns to ignore large, populous swaths of the country. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop aptly describes it:
The Electoral College is a patchwork Frankenstein’s monster of a system, which in the best of times merely ensures millions of Americans’ votes are irrelevant to the outcome because they don’t live in competitive states, and in the worst of times could be vulnerable to a major crisis.
All of this will remain true even if Donald Trump is defeated. Regardless of whether Biden is elected president or Trump somehow carries on another four years, there has rarely been a more vital moment to champion democracy and majority rule. While both principles are regrettably limited throughout America’s political institutions, abolition of the Electoral College is potentially easier to achieve than other reforms and could find widespread support (legislation even passed through the House with bipartisan buy-in once back in 1969). According to a Gallup poll published in September, a 61 percent supermajority of Americans currently favors getting rid of it.
Abolition of the Electoral College would still leave the United States with a stacked and overpowered Supreme Court, a wildly anti-majoritarian upper house, rampant voter suppression, and a host of other institutional checks that constrain and limit democracy. But regardless of how this week’s election ultimately breaks, it could represent the first step in a wider struggle to assert genuine popular control over the US federal government.
The Trump presidency may soon be over. In a more democratic country that directly elected its leaders, there would never would have been one in the first place.