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Safe Harbor, Unsafe Democracy

The undemocratic Electoral College has got to go.

December 8, 2020

Tues­day is the “safe harbor” day — the dead­line for states to determ­ine who won their elect­oral votes. Next week the Elect­oral College form­ally will elect Joe Biden pres­id­ent. Donald Trump’s bid to over­turn the elec­tion will be snuffed out. Again. 

Rather than a cause for celeb­ra­tion or even relief, today should be a day to remem­ber what a dysfunc­tional, anti-demo­cratic insti­tu­tion the Elect­oral College is and why for the sake of Amer­ican demo­cracy, we should replace it with a national popu­lar vote.

The key fact: Joe Biden hand­ily won the elec­tion, with the biggest vote share for a chal­lenger since Frank­lin Roosevelt in 1932. This time, at least, the Elect­oral College will choose the same winner as the voters. That’s the way it almost always has worked. 

The Elect­oral College has been invis­ible except when it’s been cata­strophic. If a few thou­sand votes in a few swing states had switched, Trump would stay in office despite losing the elec­tion by a wide margin.

Twice recently, in 2000 and 2016, the Elect­oral College installed in the White House the man rejec­ted by the voters. It almost happened in 2004, too. If 60,000 votes had switched in Ohio, John Kerry would have been pres­id­ent even though George W. Bush easily won the popu­lar vote. Can you name another coun­try with an elect­oral system so prone to misfir­ing?

For years, support­ers like colum­nist George F. Will argued the Elect­oral College made elec­tions seem more decis­ive, confer­ring legit­im­acy on the winner. No longer. Narrow margins in a few key states, subject to lies, litig­a­tion, and after-the-fact power grabs, can muddy a clear win.

Even when the Elect­oral College “works,” it distorts. Savvy candid­ates focus only on a few swing states. Biden and Trump stumped in Pennsylvania as if they were running for state auditor. They ignored voters in New York, Cali­for­nia, Illinois, and (until the end) Texas, unless they were rais­ing money. 

Swing state voters tend to be older and whiter than the rest of the coun­try. So are the policies that result. Small states, too, dispro­por­tion­ately white and rural, get extra weight. For the coun­try’s first 70 years, the Elect­oral College gave extra, indeed decis­ive power to slave states. Now it tilts against younger and more diverse voters.

As the coun­try changes, the Elect­oral College will increas­ingly help entrench minor­ity rule. Until this year, Demo­crats won the popu­lar vote in seven of eight pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, the longest streak in Amer­ican history. Yet Repub­lican pres­id­ents made six of nine life­time Supreme Court appoint­ments.

That’s a long-term recipe for ille­git­im­acy.

The simplest but hard­est way to address this is a consti­tu­tional amend­ment for a popu­lar vote, some­thing that actu­ally passed the House a half century ago. More imme­di­ately, states can join the National Popu­lar Vote Inter­state Compact and agree to cast their elect­oral votes for whoever won the popu­lar vote. Over two-thirds of needed states have done this.

As we press for reform of our polit­ics at all levels, let’s not forget this most basic affront to demo­cracy.