By Steven Yang, IV Form
An Analysis of the US Electoral System
The US’ system for electing its leaders has not changed since its inception. Briefly summarized, candidates usually adhere to one of the main two parties, Republicans or Democrats. Each party holds its elections (primaries) to have a single nominee. Then, candidates get a number of votes for winning the popular vote in each state. The candidate who reaches 270 electoral votes wins.
In recent elections, this electoral college has been controversial, as it has not produced the same result as the popular vote in two of the last six elections (Beckwith, 2019; Levy, 2019). Many argue, especially on the liberal side, that the electoral college should not be utilized in future elections.
However, a quieter yet equally important issue is that voters are misled by a combination of misinformation, party polarization, partisan-motivated reasoning, and an illusion of understanding, contributing to an inaccurate portrayal of opinions.
In this paper, I argue that the US electoral system does not accurately characterize the true opinions of citizens. I do so by addressing misinformation by both liberal and conservative sources covering the 2020 Presidential Election. Next, I review party polarization and its effect on the election, citing differences between the latest presidential election and previous presidential elections. Finally, I examine the psychological mechanisms politicians amongst both parties use to influence voting behavior.
In a rapidly technologically-growing time, more people have quick and easy access to news and a larger number of people are staying up to date with current events through news outlets. Both major political parties have news outlets that cover stories in biased ways designed to influence viewers towards one side or against another.
Often, biased media will echo their ideas off each other, making many viewers who belong to that party stray further from the political center in their party’s favor (being polarized) (Levendusky, 2013). This creates a norm for someone watching a polarized news source that normalizes polarization and leaves out key arguments from an opposing side. This leads to further divides among the population, encouraging negative partisanship, when opinions are created in opposition against one party instead of being created in support of a different party.
Misinformation is dangerous to a democracy like the United States as many start to question the integrity of elections. An example is President Donald Trump’s attack on mail-in ballots amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Many argue that a decrease in voters will cause the result of an election to be different if they had voted and that all candidates should want as many people as possible to vote to have an accurate outcome.
The wording and format of FOX News (a right-wing source) and CNN (a left-leaning) are immensely different. In a FOX News article regarding mail-in ballots, various concerns about mail-in ballots are mentioned, supporting Trump’s argument. However, in a CNN article regarding the same topic just days earlier, they reported no widespread fraud and argued against Trump, debunking a false tweet in which he said 20% of mail-in ballots were fraudulent, which FOX News supported.
Comparing a right-wing source and a left-leaning source, one can see how CNN correctly argued against Trump, while FOX News heavily sided with the tweet, valuing adhesion to the party more valuable than being completely factual.
Trump’s way of spreading his thoughts on topics via social media so often also undoubtedly has a great impact on the election. Being the President, his phrasing and attacks on various people has certainly been controversial.
He’s certainly the least politician-like president in history, and that’s evident in the way he speaks. He openly attacks democratic candidates, congress members, and the party as a whole in a truly unprecedented way we have never seen before from a president.
By doing this, he changes norms by distrusting the media and removing much of the importance of truth. Many supporters of the President may follow this norm solely due to supporting the President. However, this sets a dangerous precedent as people start to question much of the news and are less informed about important events.
Further, the rise in the polarization of the media could be linked to the polarization of parties overall, especially elites among them. This causes a gaping divide among the population. Candidates have become more polarized in recent elections and polarized environments fundamentally change how citizens make decisions (Druckman, Peterson, & Slothuus, 2013).
As an example, in the 2016 Republican Primary, winning candidate Trump received 44.9% of the popular vote (Berg-Andersson, 2016). However, in the following Presidential election, 92% of Republican voters voted for Trump (Pew Research Center, 2018). This shows how a relatively polarizing candidate for their party such as Trump could amass voters after winning a primary due to negative partisanship.
Although negative partisanship has been a phenomenon that has occurred much before, the more polarizing candidates tend to rely more on it. In the 2008 Presidential Election, Republican Nominee John McCain received 89% of the Republican popular vote and Democratic Nominee Barack Obama received 89% of the Democratic popular vote (Rosentiel, 2008). This shows how even over a short time, negative partisanship has grown along with the polarization of elites.
As a result of quick technological development, the electoral system has become ineffective and has not adapted. Misinformation is growing rampant online via social media and is also being spread on news outlets. The electoral system hasn’t yet adapted and it is falling behind quickly.
Partisan-motivated reasoning is clearly another reason that the electoral system is currently ineffective. Partisan biases can make people have impaired judgment, blinded by biases.
Partisan-motivated reasoning affects both sides, affecting those who are polarized more. In a study, Republicans and Democrats were asked to complete math analytical problems. The number of people with higher math skills correlated with the number of people who achieved a correct answer. However, when political content was added, regardless of whether the math supported their argument, both sides favored the conclusion they believed in (Gun control decreases crime for liberals, gun control increases crime for conservatives) (Bavel & Pereira, 2018).
This just goes to show how there’s a sense of “blindness” when affected by partisan-motivated reasoning. The number of people who get an analytical math problem correct or incorrect should theoretically not change, but the partisan-motivated reasoning fogs up the thought process and they cannot think objectively.
Motivated reasoning also causes lapses in memory, remembering events that support their party better even if they are false (Bavel & Pereira, 2018). This shows just how effective and powering partisan-motivated reasoning is.
The aforementioned negative partisanship is linked to partisan-motivated reasoning as well. People will tend to choose and support a side by default because it aligns with the majority of their party, and this effect is called social identity theory (Bavel & Pereira, 2018).
Social identity theory also is the pressure people feel to line up with a group in general. This also can transcend seemingly political spheres. People who grow up in a more liberal or conservative environment will certainly feel social pressure to support what the people around them support.
In short, the electoral system does not account whatsoever for partisan-motivated reasoning, and many underestimate just how effective partisan-motivated reasoning is and to what extent.
Another cause for the less effective electoral system is an illusion of understanding. People tend to believe that they understand a topic better than they do. As an example, people will often be confident in their ability to explain how a seemingly simple thing works, such as a sink or a treadmill. However, when they’re asked to draw how each part fits in to create the final product, many people have vastly overestimated how much they know.
By asking them to essentially rebuild the item, they must know in depth how it works. Most people do not have a holistic understanding of political policies and are affected by an illusion of explanatory depth. Almost all political policies are incredibly complex. A lack of understanding of a political mechanism is also linked to political polarization (Fernbach, Rogers, Fox, & Sloman, 2012).
This intrinsically affects the election, as a lot of people can unknowingly misinform friends and families about various candidates’ policies. Having people believe that they know more than they do is an explosion of misinformation happening each election.
This poses a problem along with social identity theory. When someone confidently explains something to a friend, family member, coworker, etc, it socially pressures the person to vote for the same candidate and it also possibly misinforms the person, due to the initial person having a lack of understanding.
Interestingly, asking them to further explain the policies in depth usually makes them more moderate. This shows how a lack of information and exposure to other opinions refuses to moderate polarized opinions. This plays in perfectly with the aforementioned media bias. People will hear one side of the argument from a liberal or conservative source, and the problem is that they will often never hear or disregard hearing the argument from the opposing party’s point of view.
The election is poorly formatted and is ill-equipped to account for the amount of bias spread from the media but also from other people. For the future, having a unit on recognizing and overcoming bias in schools may not only prepare the next generation at identifying and dealing with bias and also may help media sources stay more moderate and show all sides of an argument instead of solely favoring one side. By understanding how biases work and common tactics used in misinformation, people are more resistant to misinformation (Roozenbeek & van der Linden, 2019).
The United States has failed to adapt to a rapidly changing environment in the twenty-first century. An abundance of misinformation, along with politically motivated reasoning and an illusion of understanding are big contributors to why the current elections are not effective. It is simply not difficult to think of situations where the people vote inaccurately based on their beliefs. The least we can do is implement skills of discerning misinformation in classes at schools for the next generation. This will certainly help students be more objective and understand each argument from both sides before voting. However, it is not too late. The faster more people are politically informed and can discern bias, the elections will be more accurate in representing what people truly think.
Steven Yang is a IV form student at St. Mark’s. Some of his interests include physics, aerospace, and political science.
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