By Zakiah Nuril Zafirah
In the United States presidential election of 2020, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. came out as winner, having gained some 81.2 million votes (as of 04 December 2020) against the 74.2 million votes cast for the incumbent Donald J. Trump—for a difference of more than seven million votes. That means 306 Electoral College votes will go to Biden, 232 to Trump. Biden needs only 270 to prevail.
This time the will of the majority of the American voters carried the day. This has not always been the case.
In 2016 three million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump, and yet Clinton lost the election and Trump became the 45th US president. In 2000, half a million more Americans voted for the sitting vice president, Albert Gore, than his rival George W. Bush, and yet Bush won the election.
How could this happen? It happened and it can happen again because of a political freak called the Electoral College.
Election by elite
The Electoral College is a body of officials established by the US Constitution, which forms every four years for the sole purpose of electing the president and the vice president of the United States. Each of the 50 states and Washington DC, the nation’s capital, has a certain number of electoral votes based on its population—for a total of 538. To win the presidential election, a candidate must garner a simple majority of 270 votes.
On Election Day voters in each state cast votes for their choice of president. The candidate with the greatest number of votes wins all the electoral votes of the state and gets to send his entire slate of electors to the Electoral College on a winner-take-all basis. The exceptions are Nebraska and Maine where the election is held at the district level, with two at-large electors assigned to the winner of the statewide vote.
In this system, when the nation-wide popular vote is close, it can easily happen that the loser of the popular vote can come out the winner.
Why did the United States adopt this complex and unwieldy system of electing a president? According to historian Alexander Keyssar the establishment of the Electoral College had much to do with the institution of slavery and its persistence is due in large part to racism and the preservation of white supremacy.
The history behind the process
The process was first established by the US Constitution signed on 17 September 1787. It was developed into its present form by the 12th Amendment, which took effect in 1804.
In those days the United States was divided into North and South, with the northern states being against slavery, and their southern counterparts depending economically on slave labor. Although the populations of North and South were about equal, one-third of the southern population was made up of non-voting slaves. In a popular vote system, the South would have been at a great disadvantage. How was this problem solved?
The solution was the establishment of the Electoral College, a voting system based on population, characterized by the three-fifths compromise, which counted every five slaves as three people. Thus the southern states got more electoral votes than if the slaves were not counted at all, but not as much as if all the slaves were counted as human individuals. The allotment of electoral votes to the states has remained the same since then.
And since then every attempt at electoral reform in the US has failed. In 1970 the US Congress came closest to replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote but a filibuster led by southern senators blocked the move.
Why is the resistance to change so strong? In a state where a dominant or semi-dominant party can reliably count on winning 55 or 58 percent of the vote, that party is not going to be interested in getting rid of the Electoral College with a national popular vote or any kind of electoral reform. Moreover that dominant party has all the incentives to carry out voter suppression.
At the conclusion of his book, “Why We Still Have the Electoral College?”, Alexander Keyssar says the conventional wisdom that the small states have been blocking electoral reform is simply not true. Closer to the truth, although it does not capture the whole story—is that in much of American history, southern states bent on maintaining segregation and white dominance have blocked electoral reform.
The Indonesian experience
An electoral system that seems strange to many people would not at all look unfamiliar to an Indonesian who lived through the era of the presidency of Suharto. A military leader who survived the Communist coup attempt of 1965, Suharto served as the second president of Indonesia from September 1967 when the founding President Sukarno was ousted, until May 1998 when Suharto himself resigned in the midst of the chaos of the Asian Crisis.
In the early days of his rule, to placate demands of civilian politicians for the holding of elections, Suharto caused the formulation of a series of diktats on elections and the structure and duties of parliament. Thus a parliament (Madjelis Permusjawaratan Rakyat or MPR), with the power to elect a president, was established. It consisted of a House of Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat or DPR) and regional representatives. Of the 460 members of the DPR, 100 would be directly appointed by the government, while the remaining seats were allocated to political organizations based on the results of the general election.
Because this rubber stamp parliament had the power to elect a president, it may be regarded as Indonesia’s erstwhile version of the US Electoral College, except that it was much more strongly rigged in favor of the man who already ruled Indonesia with a firm authoritarian hand. As a result Suharto won all the presidential elections in 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993 and 1998.
Crisis and Reformasi
But the system unraveled in the chaos of the Asian Crisis and the social unrest and bloody riots in Jakarta and elsewhere in the country in May 1998. In the end Suharto had to step down to prevent the total destruction of the country.
The demise of the Suharto era was followed by an era of Reformasi, during which democratic reforms were spiritedly pursued. Freedom of the press and speech, human rights and the right to association were finally upheld. The electoral system was drastically overhauled and in late 2004, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became the first Indonesian president to be elected by national popular vote.
It took a national crisis that brought the country to the brink of total destruction to usher in an era of democratic reform, including electoral reform, in Indonesia. There is no doubt that the United States today is in a state of crisis. Although it is not as near to the edge of collapse as Indonesia was in 1998, the United States today is saddled with the issue of inequality and racism, of which the persistence of the Electoral College is a clear manifestation.
It remains to be seen if this crisis that the United States is now facing will lead to democratic reform and to a shift from the monstrosity that is the Electoral College to a system of national popular vote the vote of every person, regardless of the color of his skin, will be of as much value in terms of political clout as the vote of any other.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pinter Politik.