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Covid-19 and voting in the united states: the electoral college against Democracy?

September 30, 2020


by Maya Kandel, historian and researcher at the Université Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle (CREW).




Let's remember, though Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, he lost the popular vote.


The reason for this paradoxical success has to do with the Electoral College system which is distinctive in the United States. The current Covid-19 pandemic could bring another rendition of this scenario, and with an even wider asymmetry. The highly respected Cook Report alludes to, among five scenarios of the American presidential election on this upcoming November 3rd, the possibility of a Trump victory with a gap in the popular vote that could be as high as 5 million votes. This scenario could take place because of the following factors: less Democrats going to vote because of fear of the Covid-19 pandemic (or voting massively by mail, with the risk of it not being validated), and a highly-mobilized Republican base going to the voting booths, leading to a Trump victory, even narrow, in several key swing states. There would then be a serious crisis of legitimacy that would threaten American democracy. But it would only be the culmination of a polarized movement that has been felt for a long time.




The United States' ideological polarization has profoundly shaken the partisan landscape and this development has accelerated under the Trump presidency. To put it simply, the Democratic party has moved toward the left, the Republican party to the right. At a much deeper level, we have watched over the past 50 years a reorganization (realignment) of the electoral base ("electoral coalition") of each party along ideological criteria of course, but also and mainly racial, religious and geographic.

The 2016 debates, a reflection of an already existing polarization
The 2016 debates, a reflection of an already existing polarization

This realignment has made the Republican party a lot more homogeneous, while the Democratic party has become more "diversified" and disparate on all levels: racial, religious (also atheist and agnostic), geographic and generational. So the Democrats have to talk to a rather diverse group of voters, white progressives and black religious people, to Americans of all racial origins (that are more and more mixed), to Jews and Catholics, black Evangelicals and white liberals, Buddhists, atheists also...At the same time, the Republican party has become the voice of the white voters, older, more Christian and more rural. Three quarters of the Republicans identify themselves as conservatives; half of the Democrats consider themselves liberal - which is already a very high percentage historically.


The first consequence of this realignment, in terms of messaging and narrative, is that the Republican party can concentrate on its base, while the Democratic party cannot abandon the center.


Today, the Republicans control the White House, the Senate, the Supreme Court and the majority of the State governor slots. Only the House of Representatives is controlled by the Democrats. And yet, the Democrats not only won most of the votes in the 2018 November House elections, they also won the votes in the last three senatorial elections, as well as the 2016 and 2000 presidential elections.


The American political system counts the States and distinguishes them rather than the people, and because it rests on the rural vote, the Republican electoral coalition has a geographic advantage that mitigates, if not cancels, its numeric disadvantage.




While the Democratic party has to worry about its center, and even the center-right, the Republican party can on its end concentrate on a strong right-wing message including its own electoral base: with Trump, it has become a far-right party.

More rural and more white: Donald Trump supporters
More rural and more white: Donald Trump supporters

The Republicans lost 6 of the last 7 presidential elections with the popular vote: if they had failed to win the last presidency, it is clear that they would have changed their messaging and their agenda. If Trump had lost in 2016, his white nationalistic message and his populist style would have been discredited for the other Republican discourse (moderate) which considers it essential to also talk to minorities (see the 2013 "autopsy report" carried by Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, les Bush, etc.).


The Republicans lean on an electoral base that is continually decreasing, but have overwhelmingly major political power. This sheds light of course on their maneuvers to reduce participation, especially of minorities and Blacks in particular. It also explains the urgency, if not the panic, that is expressed in their messaging through Trump: an apocalyptic feeling of "now or never".


And that was definitely the meaning in the famous essay by Michael Anton, published by Claremont Review of Books, "The Flight 93 Election" where the central point was that conservatives had to "embrace Trump or die". You find the same type of argument, and the same institution (Claremont), behind the proposed 2020 message: "Preserve the American Way of Life" from destruction in order "to win the Cold Civil War" (see The Cold Civil War. Statecraft in a divided country).


If the Republican party could not count on the distortions of the Electoral College, the geography of the Senate and the district boundaries in the House, if in other words it had to convince the majority of Americans, it would have to become a more moderate and diverse party.


The American political and electoral system needs to become more Democratic, which Democrats are aware of and a goal they are working on. The alternative in the end will be a crisis of legitimacy that could threaten the foundations of American democracy.


By 2040, 70% of Americans will live in 15 of the most populated States: that means that 70% of the American people will be represented by 30 senators, while a crushing majority of 70 senators (out of 100) will then represent 30% of the population.


The Electoral College system with its body of electors gives (for now) the advantage to the Republicans:


A study from the University of Texas at Austin modelized the scenarios in which the Electoral College system produces an inversion of the popular vote (when the candidate loses the popular vote, but wins the presidential election): the results are shocking in the number of possibilities, because of the structural advantage that the Electoral College gives to the least populated rural States. The Democrats are all the more disadvantaged that they have a tendency to win the big States by a large margin and to lose the small States by only a few votes: Hillary Clinton won California by a margin of 3.5 million votes, but lost the States of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin at less than 80 000 votes in all - and so losing the election within the Electoral College.


The same scenario could happen again with an even wider margin because of the Democrats' "rural gap", as presented by Nate Cohn of the New York Times in the summer of 2019 (win the popular vote by over 5 million votes and lose the election to the Electoral College).




In fact, the eligible voters in 2020 represent the first wave of the current demographic transformation in the country. Next November, for the first time:

  • Americans born after 9/11 will be able to vote: this generation born after the "war against terrorism" has grown during the economic recession, has known a Black president before seeing a far-right white supremacist loudmouth enter the White House for the first time since the Civil War;
  • Generation Z (born after 1996) will surpass, in percentage of the electorate, the "silent generation" (born in the 1920s and 1930s);
  • The Latinos should surpass the Blacks as the first minority electoral group with 32 million potential voters.

Gen Z with the Millenials represents 37% of the electorate. Yet, they are:

  • Less white: only 53% of these potential eligible voters are non-Hispanic whites;
  • More educated;
  • More urban: 54% live in or close to a large city rather than in a rural area;
  • Politically and culturally, this Generation Z is close to the millenials.

The Latinos' participation and vote is still relatively unknown, but if you look at the recent polls, what appears is that:

  • Their participation, low for a long-time, is increasing: in 2018, 27% voted for the first time;
  • Still in 2018, 69% voted for Democratic candidates.

Texas and Arizona could then become Democratic States, for a relatively short time.




Before the Covid-19 pandemic, experts predicted a historic participation in 2020, up to 67%, so the highest number since 1916. In 2016, participation was at 60%.


Participation of this size would logically benefit the Democrats since the percentage of young people and minorities would increase, whereas inversely, the share of white Evangelicals in the American population, that went down globally by 2 points since 2016 and is around 15% today, would decrease.


But the current situation is generating a two-fold uncertainty: will young people and Latinos vote in 2020? and will Covid-19 bring massive abstention which would benefit Donald Trump?

Maya Kandel is a historian and researcher at the Université Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle (CREW). Her last book: Les Etats-Unis et le monde (Perrin, 2018). Website: Froggy Bottom