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Rage Against the Electoral College

The current obsession with the purported injustice of the winner-take-all-system may be a goad to reform, but it irks nonetheless.

April 17, 2019

Raging against the Electoral College is all the rage among Democrats haunted by Hillary Clinton’s loss, despite her 2.9 million popular vote margin, in the 2016 presidential election.

About three-quarters of all Democrats would like to scrap the Electoral College, according to a 2018 poll by the Pew Research Center. That level of support for a constitutional amendment has remained consistent since 2000, when Al Gore lost the presidency because of hanging chads and butterfly ballots despite a national 500,000-vote edge.

That helps explain why most progressive 2020 candidates, according to a Washington Post scorecard, support repealing the 12th Amendment, which has governed our system of picking presidents since 1804. Even those contenders nominally on the fence like Bernie Sanders say things like, “It is hard to defend the current system, in which one candidate receives 3 million votes less than his opponent but still becomes president.”

Meanwhile, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact — a clever but complicated scheme to bypass the Electoral College — has been endorsed by 15 states and the District of Columbia, which have a total of 189 electoral votes. If ever endorsed by enough states to forge a majority in the Electoral College, the compact would mandate that all participating states back the winner of the national popular vote.

It sounds impressive — and proponents bubble with excitement — but so far it has been a Democrats-only crusade. As Nathaniel Rakish points out at FiveThirtyEight, Colorado is the only swing state that has endorsed the compact and without Republican support the initiative is likely to never hit the triggering 270 electoral votes.

The unalterable truth is that the creaky Electoral College will probably be awarding presidential degrees well into the 2030s and beyond. Amending the Constitution is a daunting prospect without a bipartisan consensus, especially when the proposed changes create losers as well as winners among the states.

In 2016, for example, New Hampshire and its four electoral votes were hotly contested territory. Hillary Clinton held a rally at a downtown hotel in Manchester on the Sunday night before the election, while Donald Trump filled a hockey arena across the street on election eve. Since there are only about 750,000 votes at stake in the Granite State, without the Electoral College, New Hampshire would be ignored after its opening-gun primary.

What remains puzzling, though, is why there is not a bipartisan movement to eliminate the wrinkle in the Electoral College that potentially hurts both parties equally and dangerously undermines democracy: faithless electors, those who disregard the votes of their states to choose someone else for president.

This is not some fanciful concoction of a Hollywood screenwriter bored with such conceits as a tie in the Electoral College. In 2016, seven electors in Hawaii, Texas, and Washington rejected Trump and Clinton to opt for Colin Powell (three votes), Bernie Sanders, Faith Spotted Eagle, John Kasich, and Ron Paul. In theory, a rogue elector or two could decide a knotted election without any consideration of the Election Day verdict.

The 1970s drive to pass a popular-vote constitutional amendment was sparked, in part, by fears in 1968 that electors loyal to segregationist George Wallace (who carried five Southern states) would exact concessions in exchange for the presidency. Richard Nixon’s 301 electoral votes destroyed the bargaining power of Wallace electors —but now, in an era when all presidential elections are close (the last real landslide came in 1988), the threat of rogue electors hovers over the nation every four years. An amendment that would replace flesh-and-blood electors with abstract electoral votes would close this trap door in the Constitution — and do so without injuring any state or political party. If there is a tie in the Electoral College or if no candidate reaches 270 votes in a three-way race, the new president and vice president still would be chosen by Congress under existing constitutional procedures.

The current obsession with the purported injustice of the Electoral College may be a goad to reform, but it irks nonetheless. At a moment when Trump is challenging the validity of democratic institutions from the courts to a free press, why are liberals joining the chorus by suggesting that a president elected under constitutional mechanisms must be illegitimate if he lost the popular vote?

None of this is designed to excuse the terrible excesses of Trump’s reign of vitriol. Nor am I ignoring proven Russian efforts to hack the 2016 election. But the underlying point about the Electoral College transcends a single candidate or a single election.

Until the Constitution is changed, winning the popular vote is a talking point rather than the goal of a campaign. Al Gore’s national lead proved a potent TV argument during the protracted 2000 recount, but it had nothing to do with the knotty question of which candidate carried Florida.

Fearing another tangled election in 2004, the George W. Bush campaign worked to maximize the GOP vote, even in solidly Republican states like Texas. In contrast, the John Kerry team concentrated all their efforts on battleground states like Ohio.

The result: Bush won the national popularity contest by a 3-million-vote margin. But had Kerry corralled just 118,000 more votes in Ohio, he would have won an Electoral College majority. Somehow, I suspect that — at the height of the Iraq War — Democrats would have universally agreed that Kerry was rightfully elected president.

There are many persuasive arguments to expel the Electoral College from the Constitution. As long as campaigns are playing the game of battleground states, electoral votes are the only number that counts. There are enough reasons to be cynical about politics in 2019 without claiming that the Electoral College is as rigged as the college-admissions scandal.

(Image: Jake Olimb)