How to Destroy Democracy: A Guide to the US Electoral College


Greetings, my friends! — 
I’ve been putting off writing this article for a while — but the time is fast approaching & I want all of you to be well-informed about what we’re up against in November. I’m speaking, of course, about the 2016 general election, which is when the people are supposed to choose who the next president is going to be. However, in light of the fact that about 12% of US adults chose the two “viable” candidates, it seems likely that there won’t be a lot of “choosing” going on — in fact, it’s difficult to even call this an “election.” For many of us, the truth is that it feels a lot more like democracy is scheduled to be publicly hanged on November 8th. 

But why are we in this situation? And is there a way out…? To answer these questions, we’ll have to take a look at the outdated & needlessly-complicated labyrinth of the United States’ electoral system…

The Basics:
What is the Electoral College
& How does it (not) work?

So — let’s start with the most basic facts. First of all, the US presidential elections are not decided by how many people cast votes for a candidate — the winner of the election is decided based on how many “electors” a candidate gets. There are 538 electors (at the moment) & the number of electors each state gets is equal to the number of members it has in congress — oh, and DC gets to have as many electors as the least-populous state, which is 3. So, since there are 435 representatives (distributed based on states’ populations) & each state gets 2 senators…

100 senators + 435 representatives + 3 (for DC) = 538 electors

In order to become the president of the United States, a candidate has to get an “absolute” majority of electors, which is 270 — this is a lot like how the primaries worked, except that each state elects electors instead of delegates. But the electoral college is very different from the primaries because all states are winner-takes-all, which means that, even if the results are 49.9-50.1%, the person with 50.1% gets 100% of the electors!¹ This is why the President of the United States is sometimes not the same person who got the most votes, like when Al Gore won more votes but Bush became president, anyway.

The majority of 270 electors doesn’t change in a 3 or 4-way race, either — no matter how many candidates split the electoral votes, it still takes 270 to win. If none of them reach the target of 270, the house of representatives (which is currently overrun with conservatives) gets to pick the president.

Safe” States & “Swing” States

With only 2 “viable” parties, our winner-take-all electoral system has completely polarized the voting habits of most states so that you can count on the majority of them to vote in one way or the other — those states are usually called “safe states.” For example, rural & southern states tend to vote for conservatives & many of them are considered Republican safe states, while urban, northern states are often safe states for Democrats.

A map of the "safe" & "swing" states for 2016. Stolen shamelessly from "" Sorry, not sorry.
A map of the “safe” & “swing” states for 2016. (Stolen shamelessly from “” Sorry, not sorry)

States with a history of being less predictable are called “swing states” because they might swing either way & there’s usually not more than 10 or so — but states’ voting habits don’t always stay the same and it can be difficult to know which states will be important in a particular year.  While 2016 seems a bit more insane & unpleasant than usual, a bunch of pundits seem to agree that, based on recent polling data, there are 7 swing states, this year:

Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, & New Hampshire

But wait a minute! Why does everyone seem to think that only a Republican or a Democrat can win? Don’t we at least have the choice to vote for a 3rd party or an independent candidate…?

3rd Parties, Write-Ins, & Ballot-Access

We do have the choice to vote for whoever we want. Well, the people who live in 41 states do, at least — in theory, that is. That’s because 9 states, with a total of 54 electoral votes, don’t allow write-ins. Which means that, if you’re unfortunate enough to live in OK, NM, AR, LA, MS, SC, SD, HI, or NV, you can only choose between what’s printed on your ballot — or you can not vote. Those are your options — good luck!

And people living in the other 41 aren’t off the hook, either! In 34 of those states, write-in candidates are required to file paperwork & pay large fees, sometimes months in advance, just to have the privilege of being counted when voters write them in — and, if the right paperwork wasn’t done, you might as well have voted for Mickey Mouse because your vote means nothing.

Bar graph: clinton votes, trump votes, everyone else
Left to right: people who voted for Clinton, people who voted for Trump, & literally every other voter

Okay, so that severely limits the chances of write-ins — but at least we can all vote for 3rd party candidates, right? Hold on, lemme double-check — dammit. As it turns out, only two parties are “ballot-qualified” in every state — the Republicans & the Democrats. The next-most ballot-qualified parties are the Libertarian Party & the Green Party, in 3321 states, respectively. Depending on which states’ ballots they haven’t qualified for, 3rd parties need to meet different requirements to even be an option, there — often they have to receive a high enough % in the last election or register a certain number of voters. However — for obvious reasons — it can be tricky to win more votes when you’re not on the #!@%ing ballot and it can be equally tricky to convince voters to register with a party that they can’t vote for!

This System Will Continue
to Get Worse Until We Fix It

Unless we do something extraordinary (which, by the way, is totally within our power), it’s not hard to predict what will happen in November.  If our national averages hold up, about half of the 220 million eligible US voters will cast their ballots, mostly for 1 of 2 candidates whom they dislike, on November 8th.  23 GOP-stronghold states & 191 electoral votes will go to the red-team and 16 DNC-stronghold states & 196 electoral votes will go to the blue-team. In those 39 states, the voices of anyone who didn’t want one of the 2 “viable” candidates will have literally no effect on the election’s outcome. The remaining 12 contests will be closer &, perhaps, more entertaining — but, in the end, their 151 electors will also be divvied up between the candidates who most people don’t like but who have insurmountable advantages over any potential rivals.

Cartoon by Jacob Yona
Cartoon by Jacob Yona

Even if a 3rd party were to get on the ballot in every state, the electoral college virtually ensures that they will lose — with all but 151 electoral votes belonging to the GOP’s & the DNC’s safe states, even if a 3rd party candidate won every single one, the house of representatives — who are almost 100% democrats & republicans — would decide who “won.”

Even if we win, we lose.

But — if it makes you feel any better — this whole thing might not even be happening (for all we know) because, with DRE voting-machines in play, there’s literally no way for anyone to know if elections’ results are even real in the US.

Pretty stupid, huh?

To Sum It All Up

Except for maybe — & I mean maybe 25% of voting-age adults, US voters will be disenfranchised — whether it was because they gambled & lost on the other candidate, or because their vote was destroyed by the winner taking all, or because their choice wasn’t “ballot-qualified,” or because their repeated attempts to vote for a third option had saddled them with the cold & paralyzing weight of a learned helplessness.

As a society, we must face up to the fact that the way we conduct our elections is profoundly ineffective, outdated, & corrupt — and we cannot depend on or hope that the same politicians who benefit from the rigged system will change it. Even if we can’t “win” exactly, there still may be ways that we can leverage our votes strategically to make a difference² — but, until we do something other than vote for the “lesser evil” so that the establishment realizes that we’re not going to play their game anymore, they’ll continue to be happy as clams, while they’re counting their money & listening to us gripe.

In solidarity,
John Laurits

[twitter-follow screen_name=’@JohnLaurits’] 

P.S. Returning or regular readers might have noticed that the site looks completely different than it did, which is because it does. I spent a lot of time of time over the last week teaching myself how to mess with the design & this is the result! Let me know if you have any problems or suggestions, please 🙂

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For a more complete list of John’s articles (& other cool stuff),
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¹Well, there are actually two exceptions — in Maine & Nebraska, 1 elector is chosen in each congressional district & 2 electors are chosen by the state-wide popular vote.

²That’ll be the subject of the next article…

*Also, you can follow John on Twitter @JohnLaurits & (if ye feel so inclined) you may support him by buying him a coffee HERE or, to make a monthly donation, you can…

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Nana Kullman
Nana Kullman

I dont suppose Ive read anything like this before.


I have lurked and enjoyed your writings. This time i found a mistake about the Green Party having ballots in only 21 states. In fact it has a total of 48 states plus DC (44 states +DC + 3 write-in state (NC, GA, IN). No ballot in SD, NV, OK.)


Reblogged this on Mister Journalism: "Reading, Sharing, Discussing, Learning" and commented:
How to Destroy Democracy: A Guide to the US Electoral College
by John Laurits
In this episode, John explains how ridiculous the electoral college is… *dun-dun-DUN!*

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