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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)