President Trump has been accused of prioritizing COVID-19 aid to states that would help him win in November. Liam Glen writes on how this reflects on wider flaws with the Electoral College.
The federal response to COVID-19 has, to say the least, left room for improvement. To be fair, no country’s strategy has been perfect, but the US response has been particularly marked by chaos and uncertainty. Most concerning are accusations that the administration is using politics to determine how to give aid to state governments.
Earlier, President Trump implied that he would give less consideration to states whose governors are not “appreciative” enough of his current efforts. This would imperil citizens’ lives on the basis of a petty political feud.
More recently, reporting by the Washington Post suggests there are also strategic factors at play. There is a perception that the president is giving priority to states that will help him win the Electoral College in the general election when distributing medical equipment from national stockpiles. One White House official told the Post, “The president knows Florida is so important for his reelection… He pays close attention to what Florida wants.”
If Trump does prioritize swing states – giving aid based on what is politically advantageous rather than what would save the most lives – it would be a particularly flagrant action. But rather than being completely unique, it is a symptom of a larger problem. The Electoral College rewards presidents who respond to crises with political gain as their first priority.
The Politics of Disaster
The best case study for this may be presidential disaster declarations, which open up sources of funding in regions suffering from disasters. Voters would surely appreciate such a declaration, but the president must consider many different factors when making a decision.
Because of this, it is difficult to say in any particular case if a state is given favoritism because of its political importance. But when comparing declarations over time, the numbers do not lie.
One of the most notable studies was carried out by Washington University Professor Andrew Reeves, who looked at the response to disasters from 1981 to 2004. Even considering factors like each disaster’s severity, Reeves found that a competitive state in the Electoral College can be twice as likely to receive a disaster declaration than a safe state.
This spans across Republican and Democratic administrations. Partnering with political scientist Douglas Kriner, Reeves has considered a variety of other impacts from “presidential particularism” – when presidents pursue actions that may be unpopular with the country at large, but play well in important states. Notable examples include Barack Obama’s various efforts to woo Ohioan voters in 2012, and George W. Bush’s support of steel tariffs with hopes of winning over 2004 swing states.
When politicians prioritize some areas over others, it can easily lead to tragedy. Nothing exemplifies this better than the devastation that came to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. The federal government utterly failed to respond competently, which has been widely attributed to Puerto Rico’s status as a US territory. While its residents are US citizens, they cannot vote in presidential or congressional elections. From Washington’s point of view, then, they do not matter.
The Dilemma of Unequal Power
Politicians take the course of action that is most likely to let them remain in office. Some are more opportunistic than others, but all of them must be at least a little bit willing to compromise the common good for political gain, or else they will find themselves at severe risk of losing their jobs.
This is why an inclusive democracy is essential. When everyone’s voice is equal, politicians need to follow the common good – or, at least, they must come close to it. But if one segment of the electorate participates less, or if the system is designed to give some people more power than others, this will inevitably affect who gets attention from decision-makers.
It is wrong to say that the Electoral College is the sole cause of all of these problems. But it is impossible to deny that the system encourages presidents to spend a disproportionate amount of effort serving the needs of a select few swing states while neglecting the rest of the country. Normally, we are willing to overlook this, but times of crisis make the stakes infinitely higher.
Of course, abolishing the Electoral College is not an easy task. Many have tried and failed before – after all, there are a plethora of arguments for and against it. And with so many other problems in the country at this moment, it is hardly an immediate priority.
However, the debate over the Electoral College gets resurrected at least once every few years. Sometime in the near future, it will once again be at the center of political discourse. When this happens, we should not forget how important it is that all Americans are treated equally, regardless of whether they live in a politically significant state.