Where Are We with Abolishing the Electoral College?

| Present

After the 2016 presidential election, when candidate Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but Donald Trump became President because of the Electoral College (EC), the issue of the EC was thrust again into the forefront. Recent polls show that 63-65 percent of American adults want the EC abolished.

As we have noted before, no other advanced democracy chooses their national leader except through majority vote. We are once again an outlier in the world – and we pay the price.

The number of times in recent US history in which the majority vote and the EC have not agreed is relatively small. In 2000, Al Gore narrowly beat George W. Bush in the popular vote but narrowly lost the EC majority. In 2016, Donald Trump received nearly three million fewer total votes than Hillary Clinton but won the EC. In the 19th century, three Presidents won election through the EC while losing the popular vote: John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), and Benjamin Harrison (1888). Except for Adams, who was of the Democratic Republican party, all four winners of the EC vote who lost the majority vote have been Republicans.

What would it take to abolish the EC? The primary method is to pass a Constitutional Amendment. This would require the approval of two-thirds of the House of Representatives, two-thirds of the Senate, and three-fourths of the states, and is a high bar to overcome. Because of this difficulty, there has not been a new Amendment to the Constitution since 1992 (the 27th, having to do with compensation for Senators and Representatives).

Another option has emerged that reforms but does not outright abolish the EC: called  the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, it guarantees “the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes across all 50 states and the District of Columbia.” (It should be noted that the conservative Heritage Foundation maintains that this Compact would effectively abolish the EC.) The Compact would only go into effect once the number of states involved surpasses the 270 EC vote threshold that is needed to win the Presidency. Not surprisingly, most of the states that have already signed on, representing 195 electoral votes, are largely those that have voted for the Democratic candidate in recent elections.

There are a number of arguments for abolishing or significantly reforming the EC:

  • The EC “disproportionately inflates the influence of rural areas while undervaluing the votes of cities,” which includes the votes of many non-whites. Theoretically we Americans do not want to inflate the influence of one area or type of voter over another.
  • The EC system is based on “winner-take-all” laws in 48 states: all of a state’s electoral votes go to the candidate receiving the most popular votes in each state. This means that “presidential candidates have no reason to pay attention to the issues of concern to voters in states where the statewide outcome is a foregone conclusion.” In 2012, 38 states were completely ignored by general election events. Similarly, in 2016, “almost all campaign events (94%) were in the 12 states where Trump’s support was between 43% and 51%. Two-thirds of the events (273 of 399) were in just 6 states (OH, FL, VA, NC, PA, MI).” Theoretically a presidential candidate who is campaigning to represent all Americans should be expected to visit all 50 states and DC during the campaign.
  • So-called “‘battleground’ states receive 7% more federal grants than ‘spectator’ states, twice as many presidential disaster declarations, more Superfund enforcement exemptions, and more No Child Left Behind law exemptions.” If we truly value equality and fairness in our society, certain states should not be “privileged” over others for any random reason.
  • We do not elect any other official using a system like the EC; why do we not trust majority vote to elect the person to assume the highest position in the land?
  • As argued by the Brookings Institution, if the EC system “begins to prevent, on a regular basis, the popular vote winner from becoming president, it will create systemic challenges. Faith in elections, trust in government, and the legitimacy of elected officials and the offices they hold will be challenged by a system that consistently turns its back on the will of the voters.” We have already seen faith in our government erode over the past several decades; presumably, if we believe that our government should represent and work for us, it behooves us to encourage trust in it! (Notably, Americans’ trust is significantly lower than the trust of more than two dozen other nations in their governments.)

As might be expected, many on the American right see the national popular vote initiative, and moves to abolish the EC, as “threats.” Their arguments to preserve the EC status quo perhaps coincide with the historical results, as noted above: all the winners in the close elections decided by the EC have benefitted Republicans. A major “tell” about the bias of these sentiments is that Trump once supported abolishing the EC, saying that it was a “total disaster for democracy;” Trump – having gained considerable advantage by the system – now asserts that the EC is “far better for the U.S.A.

The five elections in our history that have not been decided by majority vote of the people represent 20 years of administrations that have not been chosen truly democratically. We can well ask, especially in the recent cases of Bush/Gore and Trump/Clinton, how differently our nation may have fared over time had the results been reversed. We will never know, but it behooves us to seriously consider moving closer to the way that our sister nations elect national leaders so that this situation does not keep occurring in the US.

Other arguments by the GOP and the right for preserving the EC witness to fear-mongering tactics and misinformation (if not deliberate disinformation):

  • The conservative Washington Examiner, in arguing that the EC “protects the diversity of interests and opinions in states, especially small rural ones in the face of large urban ones,” mischaracterizes Vermont as socialist. As we have noted earlier, the word “socialist” has many nuances and is used by the right as a fear tactic. Vermont does not have a socialist system of governance any more than do the nations of the European Union.
  • The anti-abolition argument claims that doing away with the EC would cause candidates to focus their efforts mainly on large states like New York, California, and Texas and would ignore smaller ones such as Vermont, North Dakota, and Wyoming; this imbalance would possibly threaten “the cohesion that maintains the United States.” However, the truth is the opposite. As explained clearly by the Brookings Institution, the demographics of the US over the past 100 years or so have changed dramatically, while the EC has not. Americans have moved to the coasts, especially California, which means that the “vote in a small state like Delaware or Wyoming is worth more than an Electoral College vote in a big state like California.” Thus, contrary to the right wing’s argument, the four most populous states – California, Texas, Florida and New York – are all dramatically underrepresented in the EC. This situation thus tends “to benefit Republicans in the Electoral College, while disadvantaging Democrats who have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections.”
  • The Examiner argument makes spurious claims of voter fraud to assert that keeping the EC reduces fraud. Talk of rampant voter fraud is a scare tactic, being used repeatedly by the right wing to support the Big Lie that the 2020 election was “stolen” by the Democrats. It must be constantly repeated that there is no evidence for widespread voter fraud in the US.
  • Finally, the Examiner posits an entirely cynical argument against eliminating the EC: “[Critics] argue that the system is undemocratic. But if they succeed in defeating it, surely the Senate must go as well. After all, Wyoming gets the same number of senators as California but has far fewer people. Why not just abolish the states altogether?” Seriously?!

To date, 15 states plus the District of Columbia have signed onto the Compact between 2007 and 2019: Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, Washington, Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, Vermont, California, Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, New Mexico, and Oregon. This represents 195, or 72.2%, of the 270 EC votes needed. In order to get to 270, some states that lean “red,” or GOP, in presidential elections would need to sign on. Several such states have legislation pending in the current session.

Not surprisingly, most of the states that support the Compact lean “blue,” or Democratic, in presidential elections (noting at the same time that some of these states, including Massachusetts and Vermont, have elected Republican governors over the years; this provides hope that some issues can be bipartisan). Voters who agree that the EC should be outright abolished or reformed might consider the following action steps: 1) fight the lies and disinformation on this issue promulgated by the right wing wherever and whenever possible; 2) vote for legislative candidates (mostly Democratic at this point) who will pass state legislation in support of abolition or reform of the EC; and 3) if they live in a state that has not signed onto the Compact, especially if legislation is pending, pressure their state representatives to vote Yes.