For the first time in the country’s modern history, the existence of the Electoral College has now become a campaign issue.
Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren recently called for the abolition of the Electoral College, while other Democratic presidential candidates, including former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke and Senator Kamala Harris, have said the Electoral College should be re-evaluated. Whatever that means.
I’ve made my thoughts pretty clear but for the sake of argument; here are four of the most common arguments I’ve noticed, and why they’re wrong.
- Electors filter the passions of the people
Some defend the Electoral College by citing its original purpose: to provide a check on the public in case they make a poor choice for president.
Obviously that failed miserably in 2016 and now we have the Childlike Emperor, Lord Dampnut.
Since winner-take-all laws began in the 1820s, electors have rarely acted independently or against the wishes of the party that chose them. A majority of states even have laws requiring the partisan electors to keep their pledges when voting. In presidential elections from 1992 to 2012, over 99 percent of electors kept their pledges to a candidate.
There have been a few scattered faithless electors in past elections, but they’ve never influenced the outcome. Even in 2016, when seven faithless electors broke their pledges, it didn’t move the needle.
- It forces candidates to campaign in rural areas
This one’s easy: no it doesn’t.
A popular argument on conservative websites and talk radio is that without the Electoral College, candidates would spend all their time campaigning in big cities and would ignore low-population areas.
In fact, because of the Electoral College, campaigning is generally limited to the urban areas of a handful of states.
Data from the 2016 campaign indicate that 57 percent of general election campaign events for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine were in only four states: Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio. During the general election campaign, 94 percent of campaign visits by the four candidates were in 12 “battleground” states.
And within these battleground states the candidates focused on campaigning in regions where the most voters lived. In Pennsylvania, for example, 59 percent of Pennsylvania campaign visits by Clinton and Trump in the final two months of the campaign were to the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas, with all other campaign visits going to other cities and their suburbs in the state.
Meanwhile, during the entire period after the 2016 national conventions, the four candidates never once campaigned in 24 states, including rural states like South Dakota, Kansas and Wyoming.
Presidential candidates don’t campaign in rural areas no matter what system is used. Even in the swing states where they do campaign, the candidates focus on urban areas where most voters live.
- It prohibits a couple of states or cities from picking the winner
Some claim that the Electoral College prevents one state or prohibits a few cities from determining the winner of the presidential election.
With states, again the truth is the opposite.
Under the current Electoral College system, one state by itself determined the winner of the last presidential election. Without all of Texas’ 38 electoral votes, Trump would have lost the 2016 election. The same thing happened with Florida in 2000. Without its 25 electoral votes, George W. Bush would have lost the election.
Well, he did lose the election but you know what I mean…
Meanwhile, the combined populations of the three largest U.S. cities, New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, account for less than 5 percent of the country’s population. Their combined metro area populations, including suburbs, are about 13 percent of the U.S. population. It’s not clear how 5 or 13 percent of the population would outvote the rest of the country in a national vote, and that’s assuming every voter in these metro areas votes the same way.
- It prevents the chaos of a contested election
Some, including the late historian Theodore H. White, cite the Electoral College as a way to prevent political chaos.
After the 1960 presidential election, John Kennedy’s nationwide share of the popular vote was only 0.17 percentage points higher than Richard Nixon’s share. If there had been the need for a nationwide recount, there could have been weeks or months of political deadlock. Kennedy’s clearer margin of victory in the Electoral College, 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219, prevented that.
Fair enough. However, during the 2000 presidential election, the opposite occurred. While Al Gore’s nationwide popular vote victory margin was clear, the number of votes separating Gore from George W. Bush in Florida was minuscule. And because of the Electoral College system, the outcome in Florida became the deciding factor.
After a month of court challenges, a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ordered the statewide recount be stopped and handed the presidency to Bush. The Electoral College was actually the cause of the chaotic and controversial outcome.
Campaigning on fixing the Electoral College is one thing. But how could it actually be abolished or amended?
Abolishing the Electoral College entirely would require a constitutional amendment involving two-thirds approval from both houses of Congress and 38 states. Given that a Republican has only won the national popular vote one time since the 1988 election, that’s unlikely to succeed. The Republican Party needs the Electoral College, as well as a healthy helpings of voter suppression and gerrymandering, to stay relevant as a national party.
Some advocate that all 50 states adopt Maine and Nebraska’s system of dividing up electoral votes by congressional district. But giving congressional districts a bigger role could lead to an even greater loss of voter confidence, especially in heavily gerrymandered states like Ohio and Wisconsin.
And of course, there’s my preferred solution; The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which advocates passing legislation at the state level to award electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote instead of the winner of the state popular vote.
Unfortunately, political self-interest seems to be the biggest roadblock to reform. Look no further than Donald Trump. Back in 2012, he tweeted that the Electoral College was “a disaster for democracy.”
By November 2016, after winning the presidential election despite losing the nationwide popular vote to Hillary Clinton, he’d changed his tune.
“The Electoral College,” he tweeted, “is actually genius.”