While President Trump looked hopefully at a path to re-election on Tuesday night, one fact offered a little consolation to Democrats: they were winning the popular vote. But in the US, as in the UK, that’s not what matters.
If, like me, you’ve been glued to the US election coverage, you will know by now that the US’ system for picking a president is strange, to say the least. For all that separates our two countries though, the Electoral College has a lot in common with the warped way we pick our MPs.
In both countries, it’s not who wins the most votes that matters for landing the top job – PM or President – it’s where they’re cast. Whether you win by a wafer-thin margin, or with a huge majority in one seat or state, you still get the same amount of representation.
Let’s start with a quick recap. In the US, each state is allocated a number Electoral College votes equal to their number of members of Congress. The number of Electoral College votes varies from 55 in California to three in smaller states like Delaware and Vermont.
The vast majority of states use a winner-takes-all system – where the candidate who wins the most votes in a state is assigned all of that state’s Electoral College votes. To become President you need 270 Electoral College votes or more.
As recent history has shown, that means the popular vote – who gets the most support at the ballot box – is not what matters in the US.
The result? The US has seen two Presidential ‘wrong winner’ elections since the turn of the century. In 2000, Al Gore won around half a million more votes than George W. Bush, across the whole of the United States, but Bush won the Presidency. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory over Donald Trump was even larger, at nearly three million votes, yet it was Trump who emerged victorious.
Any votes not cast for the one winner per state – or deemed ‘surplus’ to requirements – are essentially ignored. As Jesse Wegman notes in his book Let the People Pick the President, this means that every four years the parties effectively write off around 40 of the 50 states and focus on ones they can ‘swing’. For the UK, you can replace that ‘40 or 50 states’ with 300-400 constituencies.
The key states in 2016 turned out to be Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – areas where Trump was able to win by wafer-thin margins – and in 2020 these ‘Rust Belt’ states have once again dominated the election, at the expense of other voters’ views and airtime.
As well as being just plain undemocratic, the all-or-nothing system means US election debates become dominated by a handful of states – and their particular issues. Take candidates’ battle to appear supportive of fracking in Pennsylvania – rather than, for example, heeding ultra-safe California’s concerns over climate change.
As absurd as this system is – one where not all votes are treated equally – it is essentially a supersized version of Westminster’s broken electoral system.
Much like under the US set-up, we’ve seen two ‘wrong winner’ elections in the UK since the second half of the last century. In 1951, Labour got more votes than the Conservatives, but the Tories won more seats. In February 1974, the position was reversed, with the Conservatives winning more votes but Labour securing more seats.
This is always a possibility with Westminster’s First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system. When one party takes all the political representation in each of the 650 seats – and all other votes are written off – it’s where the ballots are cast which often matters more than the numbers of voters trying to be heard.
Elections become all about those ‘swing’ states or seats – and other votes are written off. Across the UK, that’s why it took 864,743 to elect the lone Green MP in 2019, 334,122 to elect each Liberal Democrat – and just 40-50,000 to elect a Conservative or Labour MP.
Sadly, most of us are stuck in the electoral wilderness of so-called ‘safe seats’. Last December, we at the Electoral Reform Society correctly predicted 316 out of 316 results weeks before polling day. Like many US states, some seats here haven’t changed hands since the Victorian era.
Parties build their campaigns on this basis – meaning it’s tumbleweed for the majority, relentless political attention for the lucky few. In the US, almost three-quarters of all 2020 campaign events took place in just six swing states, while 37 states have received no presidential campaign attention at all, according to analysis from FairVote, which campaigns for electoral reform.
In last year’s General Election in the UK, voters in swing seats were bombarded with campaign literature – while those in one-party seats were practically ignored, research for the ERS has shown. Candidates lavish campaign cash on just a handful of constituencies – and often public money, too. Your power as a voter is a postcode lottery.
Another ‘wrong winner’ result is not impossible in the US again. So as Americans fret and litigate over tiny margins shifting the entire result, both our countries need change to secure a basic principle: every vote should count equally. Proportional representation for Westminster – and an overhaul of the US’ Electoral College – would help ensure that.
Whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on, democracy isn’t such a radical idea, is it?