In a CNN interview coinciding with the release of her book What Happened, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blamed her loss on the Electoral College. While it is not surprising that someone who lost the Presidential Election would look for a scapegoat for his or her defeat, it is notable that the winner of the popular vote has lost two of the last five elections because their opponents won the College. And there is a movement currently afoot to do away with it by means of a National Popular Vote initiative. But is it really time for the Electoral College to go?
There are many who believe that it is time to amend the Electoral College out of the Constitution, and Secretary Clinton isn’t the only one who thinks so. Former Senator Barbara Boxer of California submitted legislation to eliminate the Electoral College in November 2016. At the time, she called the Electoral College “an outdated, undemocratic system that does not reflect our modern society.” The National Popular Vote initiative has been actively pushing legislation to bind the Electoral College’s votes to the winner of the popular vote since 2006, which would essentially be the same as abolishing it in all but name. Three decades earlier, then-President Jimmy Carter proposed abolishing the College in 1977. All of them, as well as others who back its abolition, all say the same thing: the Electoral College subverts the will of the people and therefore needs to go.
However, when considering such a radical change in how we elect a chief executive, it is important to analyze this claim, scrutinize the people making the claim, and carefully consider the fallout. The claimants in each of these cases all have a common factor: they are unhappy about the results of the latest election. Clinton, Boxer, and Carter are all Democrats. The National Popular Vote Initiative is centered in California, a heavily Democratic state, and the majority of its board voted Democratic in the last election. The ten states that have passed the NPV initiative are all heavily Democratic states, as is the District of Columbia, which also passed it. While I am not disparaging the decency of any one of them, it is plain that they would also benefit politically from said abolition. It is doubtful that people who would gain power and influence if not for the Electoral College are pursuing its abolition purely out of the goodness of their hearts.
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The claim itself does have some virtue, however. Solidly or reliably one-party states get little to no attention during presidential elections. As the NPV Initiative points out, their proposal to bind Electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote may result in these states getting more attention from both candidates, as there would be, theoretically, more at stake. However, it does bring to light a tangible danger of disenfranchising an entire state’s population.
What does the Electoral College do?
Electoral votes allow states to proclaim who the majority of their citizens’ support for President, and therefore are the complement to the people’s vote in each state. They are the voice of the state government in national elections. If the NPV Initiative, which binds each state’s electoral votes to the popular vote winner, had been signed into law in California in 2004, it would have required the entire state’s electoral vote to go to the national popular vote winner—George W. Bush, who lost California’s election by 1.2 million votes. This would have effectively forced the fiercely anti-Republican state to give its votes to a candidate it emphatically rejected. This coercion would have also applied to D.C. and the other nine states that have enacted the initiative. Rather than restoring the voice of the voter, the NPV Initiative, the only way to get rid of the College’s power without the near-impossibility of Constitutional amendment, threatens to fully disenfranchise both voter and state, rather than give them at least the demonstration of a “no” vote.
Nor would the NPV Initiative succeed in making each vote count equally. Currently, the vast majority of presidential campaigns occur in so-called “battleground” states—Ohio, Florida, Virginia, etc. If the Electoral College is ditched in favor of a national popular vote, then logically, the campaign would shift to states and cities with higher populations. In the 2016 election, Clinton had won the nationwide popular election by 3 million votes—but lost 84% of the 3,100 counties in the United States. In other words, in a popular vote contest, the winner of the urban areas would be the winner of the election. While this may sound like a good thing, keep in mind that what cost Clinton the election in terms of electoral votes was the loss of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—all moderately populated, reliably Democratic states who switched to Trump, in part because he acknowledged the deeply-felt hurt caused by policies which favored the urban populations that Clinton won. The Electoral College votes wound up ensuring that the voters who were against the popular vote winner were heard.
The NPV Initiative argues that the winner-take-all system is unfair, and that is undeniably true; however, their proposal—as well as other proposals to eliminate the Electoral College—would only exacerbate the current disparities within the system by making them nationwide. The other answer is already the adopted practice in Maine and Nebraska: awarding Electoral votes proportionally, reflecting the popular vote within each state. In both Maine and Nebraska, Electoral votes are awarded this way. An analysis of the 2012 election demonstrated that had each state used the proportional method, Obama (the popular vote winner) would have still won the election, though the voices of those who voted for Romney (the first runner-up) would have been amplified—272 Electors to 264. Why is this important?
Because the Democratic party—the party that most wants to abolish the Electoral College—would have gotten a wake-up call four years before Trump happened. A close shave in 2012 may have alerted them to the weakness in their state parties—state-level politics are currently dominated by Republicans—and staved off the institutional complacency that ultimately cost Clinton the 2016 election. Ironically, it appears that the winner-take-all Electoral College totals that framed Obama’s re-election as a landslide possibly lulled Democrats into a false sense of security. A proportional system in 2012, which required only the initiative of state legislators, probably would have delivered a Clinton win in 2016.
The Electoral College may need reform, but discarding it either formally through Constitutional abolition or practically through the National Popular Vote Initiative in favor of a winner-take-all popular vote would actually worsen disenfranchisement. A proportional system may require deal-making across the aisle, compromise, and actual governance. If a more centered, functional Federal government is the result rather than partial or full disenfranchisement, then it may be the best system we have.
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