Even Trump campaign functionaries are likely to admit that their candidate has little chance of winning the popular vote. Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump in 2016, and there is every indication that Joe Biden will do even better than that.
In any other democracy, that would settle the issue. Everywhere but in the United States of America, winning the most votes means you win the election. Here, we depend on an odd 18th-century relic called the Electoral College to pick our presidents.
When the founding generation of leaders were crafting our Constitution, they were trying something very new. Democracy on the scope they were attempting had never existed. They were not unanimous in the conviction that it would actually work, and so safeguards were established to rein in any populist fevers that might overrun society.
The Electoral College was an expression of this caution. Rather than let the people directly elect the president, that job would be turned over to a tiny group of prominent white men in each state who would pick the president with no requirement that they follow the popular vote, which was essentially a beauty contest. That process was soon modified to make the popular vote in each state the determinant of the electoral vote, but, other than that, the curious system has stayed with us essentially the way the founders intended.
That is why Democrats are in a state of high anxiety about the presidential election. Their candidate will almost surely get the most votes from the American people — as did Hillary Clinton and as did the loser in 2000, Al Gore — but that will not guarantee that Biden will win the 270 electoral votes needed to become president because of the way the votes are split between the states and the distinct bias toward smaller states that tend to vote Republican.
Thanks to the Electoral College, the fate of the nation is in the hands of a few thousand voters in a few states where the margin of victory could be 1% or less. This may have seemed like a sensible idea on a hot summer in Philadelphia in 1787 where the Constitution was being cobbled together, but 233 years later, it is an anachronism that increasingly undermines our democracy.
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