Millennium Post

Winner takes all

Despite innumerable controversies surrounding it over the years, the US system of electoral colleges ensures that democracy is not reduced to a simple game of numbers

A baffling situation one can ever imagine in a democracy is that despite winning a majority of the popular vote, a candidate may still not win the election. But strangely it's true in the case of the American Presidential election which is scheduled in November. A lesser-known fact for a common man but has been a moot question in American politics. In the recent past in the years 2000 and 2016 despite securing the highest numbers of the popular vote, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton lost to George Bush and Donald Trump respectively. When academics perceive this enigma as anathema to the concept of democracy, it's also seen as a discouraging factor for voters as their votes seem to end up valueless. So, but this unique feature of the presidential poll expounds the philosophy of democracy which is far different from the general understanding of democracy as majority rule or crudely put, the game of numbers.

For American society, democracy more than a mere political thought is a way of life. The political culture empowers the party members and provides a level playing field for aspiring leaders, unlike in many third world democracies where authoritarian models operate with top leadership in each party calling the shots. The election of the President is governed by principles set in Article Two of the American Constitution and Amendments 12, 20, 22, 23, and 25. The presidential hopefuls have to be first nominated through party 'caucuses' on merits such as one's dedication, seriousness, vision, etc. The primary elections of their respective parties, held across the 52 states, choose the prospective candidates through 'delegates' who formally choose the party's presidential nominee in the national convention. When no one gets more than 50 per cent of delegate votes, then there will be a revote in which delegates can vote freely switching their allegiance until the majority chosen candidate emerges. An evolved democracy, it leaves no room for back door entry. Though the President is elected by all American people, it is an indirect election on the principle of representative democracy. 52 states and the District of Columbia hold elections for 'electors', fielded by both the parties, who in turn will elect the future president known as 'electoral college'. Whichever candidate's 'electors' dominate in polls, that candidate's road to the White House is clear. Interestingly, the Constitution doesn't bar the 'electors' even to vote for the opposition party candidate if they desire, a rarity though, referred to as 'faithless' electors but reflective of the democratic spirit.

The electoral college has been a subject of controversy for over a century. Firstly, it is contended that the number of electors should be based on the population of states rather than the number of representatives of both houses. The wisdom of the fathers of the American Constitution perceived democracy more in uniformity in representation rather than by demographic dividend. As most populous states like Texas, California or Florida enjoy political attention as they have an edge over the less populated ones like Alaska, Montana, Vermont, the Constitution offsets the imbalance by assigning two electors for each senate seat for all states, size and population notwithstanding. However, population growth led to an increase in the number of electors in some states and the campaign mainly centres around such states. The fathers of the Constitution believed that more than a democracy, a nation should have a republic with equal and independent component states so that 'tyranny of the majority' can be warded off. They also envisioned that the chief executive and the head of the state — the US President — who has more power than the other two organs of the state i.e., legislature and judiciary, should be equally responsible towards all states.

Critics argue that though the 'national popular vote' (public vote) has neither relevant nor legitimacy since it's the electoral college which decides the US Presidential Election. It's a convincing argument because at least five times in history it so happened that candidates who secured the highest number of popular votes lost to those who secured less. But it is too hasty to judge the American system without appreciating the philosophy behind it. On the face of it, numbers matter in a democracy which of course is true with electoral college eventually, but numbers also mean a brute majority in favour of one person and rejection of the other which in case of popular vote may lead to glorified 'tyranny'. American political philosophy puts a premium on 'representative democracy' (electoral college) to ensure that the candidate who has a greater number of 'electors' from states favouring him will be the President and would be responsible for all people in general no matter who voted for him or not; popular vote becomes irrelevant thus. Strange, but it's a wise and thoughtful arrangement. The logic is supported by the principle of 'Winner takes all', which is unique to American politics which means that in a state, if a candidate wins more electors than his opponent, then even the number of electors the latter secured will go to the former. It implies that all those popular votes cast in favour of the candidate that scored fewer electors are deemed to be cast in favour of the one who got more electors. Hence the focus on 'swing' states by both the parties. The voters of course feel that their votes are wasted. But the system awards them 'notionally' to winning candidates with an implicit mandate that he represents them too. It's because democracy in America doesn't mean majority rule alone but also means rule by 'unanimity'. The 'winner takes all' principle puts to rest any hard feelings between the two rivals and is also equitable since both stand equal chances to 'take all'. It is a healthy practice which can if followed, address political hatred and ills of power politics in many democracies.

The political evolution of American society has largely been shaped by revolutionary events such as American war of Independence against the British Crown in 1776, the Civil War in 1864, abolition of slavery in 1865, and the civil rights movement by Martin Luther King Jr in the 20th century. Democratic values like equality, freedom and inclusion have become the foundation of society there which many third world societies are yet to imbibe fully. Traditional values and beliefs continue to dominate democracies in liberated ex-colonies. It's not singing in praise of a particular country which too has its own discomfitures but the ethos of democracy is always worth emulating. Democracy doesn't mean only voting once in five years or the politics of resorts and hotels. Its democratic culture and values which, more than voters, the political parties must try to institutionalise. Restoring internal democracy is the first step in the process. Cadres should be groomed like members with views rather than numbers to hold the flag and rally behind a few leaders. Political equality and freedom within are essential to strengthen parties which necessitate the politics of principles as opposed to politics of identity.

The writer is a former Additional Chief Secretary of Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are personal

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