Explaining the Electoral College to My Mexican Father-in-Law

Nov 5, 2020
5:54 PM

The latest 2020 Electoral College map by the AP, as of 5:45 pm ET, November 5, 2020

LAS VEGAS — For Election Night my suegro whipped up some sopes de carne molida. The two of us sat in the living room behind our TV trays, munching on the sopes and taking swigs from our guava beers, as we watched the results pour in from back east. Biden was up by 2.2 million votes and steadily pulling away from President Trump, and CNN’s John King was slaving away at a big interactive touchscreen, zooming into counties to show the vote counts and the percentage counted.

“Biden’s winning by a lot already,” I heard my father-in-law say in Spanish.

“It’s still early,” I said with a mouthful of beans, carne molida and fried masa.

“Yeah, but if it keeps going like this, he’ll win big.”

On the TV, John King had zoomed into Miami-Dade County, where Team Biden was showing a lackluster performance, only up by seven points. Team Hillary had whooped the President there by 29 points four years ago. Mr. King explained how this didn’t bode well for the Democrats in Florida—or across the country, for that matter—since metropolitan areas like Miami are supposed to be the Democrats’ bread and butter, hopefully giving them enough votes to weather the fact that rural counties reliably vote Republican.

“No, but we”—by which I meant the United States—”don’t elect a president by how many votes someone gets. That’s how it is in Mexico, right?”

By the way my suegro nodded, I know he was wondering how it could be any different anywhere else, at least in places that call themselves democracies.

“Biden can beat Trump by five million votes,” I explained, “and Trump could still be elected president. Because it doesn’t go by the most votes, it goes by states. And whoever wins the most votes in a state, wins all the votes that state has.”

Never mind Maine and Nebraska.

“See,” I said, pointing to the screen, “Florida has 29 electoral votes. Illinois has 20. Texas has a lot. And since the Republicans always win most states… all the states in the South, like Alabama, or Mississippi, or states like Montana, Idaho, Indiana… and the Democrats always win states like Illinois, New York, California, the two parties are always fighting over a few states here and there, like Ohio and Florida. Pennsylvania. Wisconsin.”

The old man had a strange look on his face, halfway between confusion and despair. “I would’ve thought the United States had a better system.”

Huh! America has one of the worst systems. Our constitution is one of the first in the world… It may be the first, actually, since 1776. Or ’89, I mean… But on the other hand that also means it’s the oldest.”

My suegro was nodding.

“But the world has developed new processes since then, new ways of electing leaders.”

Few things are more embarrassing than explaining America’s electoral system to someone who did not grow up in the United States. Describing the Electoral College to my Mexican father-in-law was like telling him that everyone on my side of the family picks their nose: he simply couldn’t understand it, and even seemed to be disgusted by it.

As should we all in this country. Why do we still accept an electoral system that disregards the popular vote at the national level and gives more weight to rural areas than they’re due? The official rationale, of course, is that the Electoral College, and America’s system of government generally, gives power to the minority vote. The Electoral College supposedly makes it so that Small Town America isn’t drowned out by Big City USA. But really it’s to make sure the government —despite what the people might want— leans conservative, and that America remains a bastion for whiteness, maleness, and Christian fundamentalism.

By weakening the democratic power of cities, the founders installed the Electoral College to protect the aristocracy from the masses. This antagonism between the elites and the rabble is as old as democracy itself: the plains people versus the hillfolk in ancient Athens, or the patricians versus the plebes in ancient Rome. The Industrial Revolution led to massive urbanization, with people fleeing the jobless countryside and flooding into cities—a bit like what happened recently in Mexico after NAFTA. But there are always less jobs in cities than there are jobseekers, a fact which capitalism can’t help but exploit.

Plus the vast majority of black and brown people live in urban areas. Few live among the amber waves of grain in Kansas or Iowa, or the majestic purple mountains of Idaho or Utah—and a great number of the brown people who do live in those places probably don’t even have the right to take a sick day, much less vote.

So the Electoral College is basically a tool to keep white capitalists in power. That this is its sole purpose, its raison d’être, is so obvious, explaining the whole mess to my father-in-law made me wish I lived in another country, a better country, like the one I was always told I lived in when I was still a snot-nosed kid.

By not choosing our president by popular vote and instead leaving it to the Electoral College, every four years offers six ways from Sunday to fudge with a presidential election

As it stands in the current showdown, for example, as of the time of this writing—Thursday, 2:50 PM PST—Biden is beating the President by nearly four million votes. And yet we’re still waiting on word from Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and a few other places, to see who will have the honor of leading the Great American Shitshow for the next four years.

The President will almost certainly demand a recount in Nevada, which grants one to any candidate that requests it, regardless of the initial results. If things aren’t settled in Nevada after that, the state’s leaders could decide it for themselves—and with the governorship, the Senate and the Assembly all under Democratic control, we don’t need a Krystal Ball to tell us how that will turn out.

Should the situation grow any hairier, the mess could get sorted out by the Supreme Court, where the newly appointed Amy Coney Barrett and the other five conservative judges are standing by, ready and waiting to defend their President against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Or Congress could decide it in a vote, like in 1877, when the loser won over 50 percent of the popular vote but fell a couple electoral votes shy of the win. Each state would be allowed one vote, and since a majority of the states are Republican strongholds, Biden stands as much of a chance at winning the vote in Congress as he does being crowned by Trump’s Supreme Court.

Yet, again, because it bears repeating: Biden is up by nearly four million votes, or 2.5 percent of all votes cast, having won more votes than any presidential candidate in U.S. history. And he still is not declared President and he might even lose this race.

Sleep tight, America.


Hector Luis Alamo is the Editor and Publisher of ENCLAVE and host of the Remember the Show! podcast. He tweets from @HectorLuisAlamo.