As I write this, President Donald Trump is still doing everything once unthinkable to overturn the election results. Fortunately, he has not succeeded — and he is unlikely to. The independence of the U.S. court and electoral systems have so far proved steadfast.
But the election should never have been this close. And, in fact, it wasn’t. By the popular vote, Joe Biden won comfortably. By the archaic Electoral College system, the election was decided by a handful of states, some with margins slimmer than 20,000. It was a mirage of closeness that buoyed unfounded calls of unfairness.
When I was growing up in South Africa, I had never heard of the Electoral College. (Sometimes I pine for those ignorant days.) While South Africa’s government is no global model — it is rife with corruption — one area I think we get right is the multiparty parliamentary system. Voters in South Africa can choose from an array of parties. In 1994, the year apartheid officially fell and South Africa held its first free democratic elections, voters could choose between Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, the Democratic Party (an anti-apartheid party led by whites), the Women’s Rights Peace Party (that sounded pretty good), the Keep it Straight and Simple Party (not sure what that was about) and, among others, the Soccer Party. The Soccer Party, while it had a Rastafarian leader and a heavy emphasis on legalizing marijuana, was not actually as marginal as its name suggests. It had a heartfelt message of bringing people of all races together, as sports often successfully does. And as its co-leader (it was led by two friends and neighbors, one Black, one white) rightfully said: “This is democracy now. Everyone should get their say.”
In this everyone-at-the-table system, each party gets a seat in parliament reflective of the number of votes received. The party that wins the majority of seats is the party in charge. So a fringe party, like the Soccer Party, may get a seat if it passes a certain voter threshold (the Soccer Party only got about 10,000 votes, so it didn’t make the cut). It wouldn’t get a lot of power, but its members would have a voice at the table.
Now imagine that system in America. With an array of political party options, it’s conceivable that Trump’s rise to power would have faltered before he even got off the escalator. And it’s far less likely that he would have been able to drag moderate — or simply clear-thinking-don’t-believe-the-earth-is-flat — Republicans into the mire of his making. Trump and Republican moderates would never have been in the same party. Trump’s fans would have had an outlet for their anger — it just would have been less likely to consume the government. The South African system also dictates that the National Assembly selects the majority party leader, i.e., the president, which means they can also vote him out. It’s a process meant to discourage cult of personality. And if the last four years in America make any kind of sense, it is through the lens of a cult.
But that is not the system in these United States. And considering Congress is routinely unable to pass something as essential as a budget (hence the unending parade of emergency stopgap measures to keep the government open), the system is unlikely to change.
So, how do we make sure elections that are not really close — are not really close?
The first step: Make our votes matter.
In the current two-party system, the views of millions of voters don’t really count. No one campaigns in the deep-red swaths across the country’s middle or the deep-blue fringe along its edges. Those states are secure and can basically be discounted. In addition, by design, sparsely populated states have outsized influence. The U.S. Senate offers the same number of seats to Wyoming (population: 0.5 million) and California (population: 39.5 million). Partisan gerrymandering gives an added advantage to the party in power in the U.S. House, and the popular vote can be overruled by a few purple states.
It’s a system where minority opinions within individual states have no voice — and majority opinions overall can be overruled. Not great.
We can certainly work to undo gerrymandering and voting restrictions that make it harder for minority voices to be heard. It’s hard work, but it can be done. However, the Senate will still be the Senate. The Electoral College will still be the Electoral College.
And that’s how it comes to this: The only way we can really change the system is if we pack our bags and move across country. I don’t say that lightly. I hate moving.
America is one of the most polarized nations in the world. Not only racially, politically and socioeconomically — but by location. There’s nothing more foreign to a “country boy” than the idea of living in a city — and nothing that gets derided more quickly by a “city slicker” than the idea of living in the sticks. Yes, I’m simplifying things. But it’s essentially true. American cities pop up on political maps like blue koppies (look it up) on a red desert. Urban Americans are overwhelmingly liberal. Rural Americans are overwhelmingly not. Perhaps it has to do with close living quarters. When your daily routine depends on millions of other people acting appropriately, you may be more open to the idea of working collectively. If your nearest neighbor is three miles away, your life may seem less interconnected and dependent on the actions of strangers.
This locational divide has led to millions of urban Americans considering huge swaths of their fellow citizens’ homes as “flyover country” barely worth mentioning. And it has led millions of rural Americans to never venture outside their county lines and to consider their fellow citizens as foreign and unfathomable.
If every state in America was purple — if every county in America was purple — politicians would have to listen more. They’d have to campaign everywhere. They’d have to work together more. And maybe, just maybe, we would understand each other more. Maybe Trump’s supporters wouldn’t believe the election was stolen if their neighbors voted against him. Maybe liberals would better understand how Trump rose to power if his supporters lived across the street.
Omaha is officially a purple city. Maybe that’s why it’s a particularly great place to live. We don’t have a large voice in the national conversation — we sparingly hand out one electoral vote — but we do have a voice. I love that it turned blue and voted for reason and compassion in 2020, but I hope it stays purple. I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, and I don’t want my voice not to count.
My hope for 2021 is that more blue flags will be pinned in more red earth — and more red flags will be pinned in blue koppies. I’d also like the Soccer Party to be revived. I don’t think I gave them a decent look first time around.
About the Author
Robyn Murray is a South African-American writer. She moved to the U.S. from South Africa in 2000 and has worked as a journalist and writer in Omaha since 2006. Her reporting has been broadcast on NPR, BBC, CBC and PRI as well as locally on NET Radio and KVNO. Her print work has been published in Business Day in Johannesburg and USA TODAY.