Don’t Lose Sight of the Real Biases in—and Problems With—Our Election System

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Last week’s claims that votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were hacked appear to have been pretty substantially overstated, but there are very real problems elsewhere in the system.

By Seth Masket


A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last week’s Thanksgiving preparations included a new tradition: assessing fraud allegations in the presidential election. This made for a fascinating and important discussion about the integrity of our election systems, even if there wasn’t much of a story there. But it could distract us from the actual and incontrovertible biases in our elections that we should really be focusing on.

An analysis put forward by computer scientists and elections attorneys, as reported byNew York magazine last week, suggested that votes in the presidential elections in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were hacked. These claims appear to have been pretty substantially overstated, and Andrew Prokop and Carl Bialik and Rob Arthur quickly splashed some cold water on the allegations. One of the computer scientists, J. Alexis Halderman, later clarified that his group was simply showing that our election system is vulnerable to a cyberattack and that the only way to be sure that we weren’t hacked is to audit our elections.

As any examination of a close presidential election in the United States tends to reveal, our election system is an extremely messy one. Indeed, it’s a real stretch to call it a “system” at all. Each state conducts elections by its own set of rules and procedures, and often counties and municipalities within those states have their own standards for ballot design, vote collection, and vote security. These distinctions are usually of only minor consequence, but, when an election is close, they can become vitally important. A slightly different ballot design in Palm Beach County, Florida, in 2000, for example, might well have resulted in Al Gore becoming the 43rd president.

The problem with the allegations of vote fraud in 2016 in the absence of hard evidence is that it feeds into paranoid conspiracy theories and undermines faith in our democratic institutions. Remember just a few weeks ago when Donald Trump and his supporters were irresponsibly claiming that the system was rigged against them? Liberals are just as susceptible to such thinking — especially when an electoral victory they broadly anticipated was taken from them at the last minute — and it’s irresponsible to feed such misperceptions.

But another problem with such allegations is that they tend to cast all claims of rigged elections in the same light. Yet there are actual riggings occurring all the time, and the evidence is bountiful.

To take one example, look at the Electoral College. Our adherence to this system, and the practice by 48 states of awarding electoral votes in a winner-take-all fashion, produces a bias to our electoral system that gives a greater voice to voters in rural states. This was, of course, its intent — representation in the Electoral College is based on representation to the Congress, where the advantages (every state gets two senators) to rural states with fixed western boundaries was part of the compromise that allowed the U.S. Constitution to be ratified. But just because this compromise was politically necessary in 1787 does not mean it is necessary or desirable today.

Now, one may certainly argue that there are advantages to the Electoral College, and perhaps even that there should be a vote bonus offered to those living in small states. It ensures that those voters and their concerns won’t be lost among a vast and increasingly urbanized national electorate. But this is particularly problematic in an era when our party system is polarized not just along liberal and conservative lines, but also among urban and rural ones. Rural states are far more likely to be Republican today, and Democratic states are more likely to have large urban centers.

In such an environment, the bias produced by the Electoral College simply means Republican states get bonus votes. It’s not a coincidence that the presidential candidates who won the popular vote and lost the presidency were Democrats. Hillary Clinton may well win by a larger popular vote margin than George W. Bush did in his 2004 re-election bid, but that’s not enough for a Democrat to become president anymore. The Electoral College raises the threshold for victory for Democrats and lowers it for Republicans, and this situation is likely to worsen as polarization continues.

What other kind of rigging is going on? As we should remember, this was the first presidential election held in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision, which gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Several states, including Wisconsin and Michigan, have enacted stringent voter identification laws.

Now, you may argue that the integrity of our voting systems is important enough that voters should be required to bring photo identification with them to the polls. But this is not an equal burden for all voters. For one thing, not everyone has a driver’s license. Licenses are substantially rarer among poorer, urban populations, who are more likely to have access to public transportation to get to work than rural residents are. African Americans are far less likely than whites to have a photo ID on them. And thus voter ID laws tend to have an adverse affect on Democrats, all in the name of preventing a form of voter fraud that basically doesn’t exist.

If you’re concerned about the integrity of American elections — and there’s good reason to be — please do not be beguiled by stories of vote hacking and machine tampering. There are systems in place that are actively and transparently distorting election outcomes such that the results we get are not those that most voters wanted. Let’s concentrate our fire on those.