How to Reform the Electoral College

The much-maligned Electoral College does not need to be abolished. It just has to change how it operates.

December 9, 2016

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Until November, most Americans likely regarded the Electoral College as a quaint relic of ye olden Founding Fathers times, if they even thought about it at all. The College was about as relevant to­ modern democracy as a fife and drum corps.

But after this year’s traumatic presidential election, the College is under the microscope as tens of millions of Americans have fixed on the mysterious institution. Like many a teenager in science class gazing upon a protozoan for the first time, they’re seeing all sorts of creepy things, not least that sometimes the winner of the popular vote doesn’t get to be President because of the Electoral College. It’s not pretty, and many people have concluded they want to squash it.

Almost five million people have signed a petition asking the Electors to vote for Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump. Others have swamped the federal agency that helps coordinate the College with calls and emails. And members of the College, normally minor political figures who perform a ceremonial role, have gotten more attention than they ever bargained for.

These are all Hail Mary efforts to change the outcome of the election, which is to say they are extremely unlikely to succeed. The Electoral College has survived more efforts to reform or abolish it than any other American political institution. “There have been more proposals for Constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College than on any other subject,” according to the National Archives.

It may surprise you to learn, however, that there is one Electoral College reform initiative that still has a shot — better at least than any other effort undertaken in the last half century: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. (Before you get excited, it wouldn’t have any impact on this year’s election).

Simply put, under the Compact, states would agree to award their electoral votes to the candidate that wins the popular vote. Ten states and D.C. have passed the Compact, comprising 165 electoral votes. The Compact will take effect if and when states representing a majority of electoral votes, which is 270, pass it.

I recently sat down with New Yorker staff writer and fellow Electoral College obsessive Hendrik Hertzberg to talk about the institution and the Compact on the Brennan Center’s podcast, The Line.

Hertzberg is no fan of the Electoral College and has written persuasively about its flaws. He’s a big supporter of the Compact.

The Electoral College “distorts and perverts democracy and participation,” he told me, “because the general election only happens in about a dozen states at most and the other 40 states are just spectators. It’s just outrageous when you examine the effect this has.”

If implemented, the Compact would transform American elections, he believes. “However, complicated it might seem at first glance…it’s an absolutely brilliant solution.”

Go to iTunes or Soundcloud and have a listen. The podcast runs about 26 minutes.  

(Photo: ThinkStock)