The Never-Ending Crisis of the Electoral CollegeRoundup
tags: Electoral College, presidential history, 2020 Election
Bruce Bartlett is a longtime observer and commenter on economic and political affairs in Washington, D.C., who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Politico, and many others. A bestselling author, his latest book is The Truth Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Separating Facts From Lies and Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks.
“The Electoral College is a disaster for a democracy.”—Donald Trump, November 6, 2012
“The Electoral College is actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play. Campaigning is much different!”—Donald Trump, November 15, 2016
Every four years, Americans get a little lesson in constitutional law when they are reminded that presidents are not actually elected by the people; the winner of the popular vote nationally doesn’t necessarily win the election, the official winner is chosen by the Electoral College. When people vote in presidential elections, they aren’t really voting for president at all: They are voting for slates of electors put forward by each party who are expected to vote for the winner of their state’s presidential race.
Clearly, this is an absurd system. No other country has anything like it. It exists because the Founding Fathers were deeply distrustful of pure democracy. At the Constitutional Convention on July 17, 1787, George Mason of Virginia said that “it would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief magistrate to the people, as it would, to refer a trial of colors to a blind man.”
But at the same time, they distrusted allowing the legislature to name the nation’s chief executive, as is done in parliamentary democracies. This led them to create the Electoral College as a sort of intermediate institution.
The only realistic option for neutering the Electoral College is something called the National Popular Vote initiative. It takes advantage of the fact that states can determine for themselves how their electors are chosen. (This does not mean that state legislatures can arbitrarily replace their state’s electors now, as some right-wing fools have asserted.) States supporting popular election of the president can pledge to require their electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote, rather than just the popular vote in that state. Fifteen states with a combined 196 electoral votes have passed legislation agreeing to this arrangement, but it won’t go into effect until there are at least 270 electoral votes among states belonging to the compact.
Had this system been in effect, electors in states won by Trump would automatically have been allocated to Biden, since he easily won the national popular vote by some five million votes. There would be no need for recounts or court challenges in individual states unless the national popular vote was extraordinarily close. We would know the winner on election night, just as all voters had hoped.
Opponents of the National Popular Vote plan denounce it with the same argument traditionally made by defenders of the Electoral College—that populous states would have undue influence and small states would be overlooked during campaigns. Trump made this point in a two-part tweet on March 19, 2019 (here and here):
Campaigning for the Popular Vote is much easier & different than campaigning for the Electoral College. It’s like training for the 100 yard dash vs. a marathon. The brilliance of the Electoral College is that you must go to many States to win. With the Popular Vote, you go to just the large States - the Cities would end up running the Country. Smaller States & the entire Midwest would end up losing all power - & we can’t let that happen. I used to like the idea of the Popular Vote, but now realize the Electoral College is far better for the U.S.A.
Not surprisingly, the Republican Platform denounced the National Popular Vote arrangement as “a grave threat to our federal system and a guarantee of corruption, as every ballot box in every state would offer a chance to steal the presidency.”
But the fact is that the bulk of states are overlooked now; in every election cycle, the same few “battleground” states are the ones in play because the parties are evenly balanced in those states and can swing either way. The potential for corruption is far greater under the current system, where a few votes in key states can determine the winner, than would be the case if millions of votes nationwide had to be stolen.