A definitive case against the Electoral College

One of the biggest problems with American democracy is that it’s not democratic.

Two of the last five presidents were elected despite losing the popular vote, more than half the Senate is elected by roughly 18 percent of the population, and voting districts are increasingly gerrymandered in ways that disenfranchise the people who live there.

Our process for choosing the president, the Electoral College, is probably the strangest and most explicitly anti-democratic feature of the American political system. It was conceived in part as a firewall against majority will in case the mob ever elected someone grotesquely unqualified for the office. (It, uh, didn’t work.)

But the history is more complicated than that. Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional scholar at Yale, has argued that the Electoral College was a concession to the slave states at the time of the founding. Another popular theory is that the Electoral College was designed to prevent presidential candidates from ignoring the smaller, less populated states.

Whatever the case, there’s no denying that the Electoral College is anti-democratic. According to Democratic data scientist David Shor, “The Electoral College bias is now such that realistically [Democrats] have to win by 3.5 to 4 percent in order to win presidential elections.” So why is it still around? What purpose does it serve today? And more importantly, can we get rid of it?

Jesse Wegman, an editorial board member at the New York Times, has made a definitive case against the Electoral College in his book Let the People Pick the President. Among other things, Wegman argues that the Electoral College creates a false picture of a country reduced to red and blue states when, in fact, the United States is a purple country — and Americans pay a huge price for upholding a system that doesn’t represent that diversity.

I spoke to Wegman about the shoddy origins of the Electoral College and why he thinks we have to eliminate it back in July, but the conversation is still relevant. Joe Biden has opened up a wide lead over Donald Trump in the national polls, but the race is by no means over, thanks to the Electoral College. If Trump loses the popular vote by a few million votes and somehow manages to win the election by securing 270 electoral votes, discontent over this antidemocratic relic may well boil over.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You explain in the book how slipshod and hurried the process of conceiving the Electoral College was. No one really believed in it all that much and it was cobbled together at the last minute and only adopted because every other idea failed to win enough support. Were there any justifiable reasons for creating it in the first place?

Jesse Wegman

You can certainly look at things from the framers’ perspective and say it’s understandable that they were concerned about how to elect the president. It had never been done before. They were building this out of whole cloth and the concerns that they had were real.

One of the major concerns was that many of the delegates didn’t want Congress involved in electing the president since they had just created a system built on a separation of powers. Another concern was that citizens would never be able to make an informed decision about national candidates because they just wouldn’t have the information they needed, given the nature of communications technology back then.

Sean Illing

What would you say was the foremost reason they created the Electoral College?

Jesse Wegman

I don’t think there was a foremost purpose. As you said, they were scrambling to get this thing done and they debated it endlessly for something like 21 days. And none of the other proposals, like a national popular vote, had enough support to get into the Constitution.

But I’d say the driving force was to get the Constitution finished and sent out for ratification. Beyond that, the main issues were keeping the election of the president out of Congress’s hands and ensuring the electors who made up the Electoral College knew who the candidates were and could make wise decisions.

And then of course you had the immovable obstacle of slavery and ensuring that the slave-holding states didn’t unravel the whole process. James Madison himself said during the middle of the convention that “the popular vote is the fittest way to elect a president,” but that the South wouldn’t go for it. And he says this more than once. So it’s clear that the Founders knew the slave states had a ton of leverage.

Sean Illing

We know the process of passing it was flawed. We know it was the product of brutal compromises. But has the Electoral College ever operated the way it was intended to operate?

Jesse Wegman

No — with the possible exception of the first two elections when George Washington was on the ticket. But after that, we basically had electors who were not operating in what the framers thought of as the best interests of the country. The electors were just party hacks. That was clear by 1796, and it’s just as clear today. The electors have never been these disinterested, neutral, wise men the founders imagined.

Sean Illing

Why have all the attempts to reform or abolish the Electoral College failed?

Jesse Wegman

I think that the most common reason is because one or both political parties have seen themselves as benefiting from it in some way. So it’s almost always a short-term political calculus that keeps the college alive. It’s very rare that it’s about anything relating to democratic principles or some notion of what’s fair or just. No one thinks the Electoral College was a brilliant constitutional invention, but it’s been preserved over the years for political reasons.

Sean Illing

Okay, but the dynamics have changed, right? Now the Electoral College benefits the Republican Party almost exclusively.

Jesse Wegman

You’re right that the college has typically leaned toward one party or the other — that was true in 2016 and almost certainly true for 2020. But I’d also say that it’s harder than we think to say that definitively in advance of an election.

Republicans won the 2004 election, but the Electoral College actually gave the Democrats a boost. If 60,000 votes went the other way in Ohio, George W. Bush would have won the national popular vote by 3 million votes, but John Kerry would’ve been elected. So the advantages aren’t so fixed.

But yes, I concede the point you’re making: Right now, the Electoral College benefits Republicans pretty clearly, and a split election is much, much more likely to go the Republican candidate.

Sean Illing

A lot of people who hear these sorts of objections to the Electoral College think it’s just sour grapes from liberals who don’t like the current outcome of the system. How do you respond to that?

Jesse Wegman

I’m as upset as anybody who experienced their preferred candidate winning more votes and not being elected. I think it violates our basic sense of what majority rule means. All I would say to those people is, look at Trump’s tweet in 2012 arguing that the Electoral College is a disaster for democracy. The circumstances of that tweet is that on Election Night 2012, early exit polling was suggesting that Mitt Romney might win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College to Obama. So the mere possibility that that could happen triggered Trump’s tweet, and all I’ll say is that I sympathize.

Sean Illing

And it’s actually happened twice in the last 20 years for Democrats —

Jesse Wegman

Right! And I’ll bet any amount of money that the moment it happened in the other direction, you would see exactly the same reaction from the other side, and that’s because everybody in their gut feels the unfairness of a system that does not put the person with the most votes in the White House.

Sean Illing

What would you say is the biggest myth or misconception about the Electoral College?

Jesse Wegman

This idea that somehow small states currently have a voice under the Electoral College system, and that they would lose that voice under a popular vote, is just the exact inverse of reality. Right now, small states have no voice because they, like big states and medium-size states across the country, are not battleground states. The only states that matter in a winner-take-all Electoral College scenario are battleground states, and those are the states where the candidates spend virtually 100 percent of their time and money trying to win.

There are 13 states with three or four electoral votes. We call those the small states. One of those states, New Hampshire, is a battleground state. New Hampshire gets more attention from both campaigns every four years than all the other 12 small states combined. The small states are a complete nonentity right now.

Sean Illing

What about the claim that big cities would dominate a popular election?

Jesse Wegman

As a factual mathematical matter, that’s just untrue. The biggest cities in the country don’t come close to having enough votes to swing a national election. They can’t even swing elections for governor in their own states. New York City didn’t vote for George Pataki. Los Angeles didn’t vote for Pete Wilson in 1990. The 50 biggest cities in the country represent about 15 percent of the population. Even in fairly big cities with more than 350,000 people or so, roughly 40 percent of the vote goes to Republican candidates — and in any case it’s far from zero. And often in rural areas, the same electoral math holds.

And then just by comparison, the rural areas of America also represent about 15 percent of the population, and they vote about 60/40 in favor of the Republicans. So big cities and rural America are essentially a wash in every presidential election. So the idea that big cities would somehow suddenly decide who the president was for everybody else is just wrong on the math.

Sean Illing

A central focus of your book is this idea that ending the Electoral College would change the way candidates campaign and therefore the sorts of issues they prioritize. Why is that a big deal?

Jesse Wegman

It’s a great question, and I think it really gets to the heart of what the problem is here. When candidates only visit a few states and even a few regions in those few states, you really see a warping of policy priorities. Both Democratic and Republican candidates focus on issues that are important to, say, coal miners in Pennsylvania or auto workers in Michigan, but those aren’t the only issues in the country. And if you have a campaign that is forced to pay attention to everyone in the country and has to treat every vote as equally important, which is what a popular vote election would be, this would solve these problems and it would be more fair to the country as a whole.

Issues like immigration reform, health care reform, background checks on guns — these are things that the vast majority of the country supports, and it’s very hard to get presidential candidates to really get behind them if they aren’t the key issues for voters in battleground states.

Sean Illing

The most common defense of the Electoral College is that it’s a kind of last-resort firewall against a manifestly unfit president. Now, obviously, our current president proves how useless that firewall is, but is there a case, in principle at least, for keeping the Electoral College on these grounds?

Jesse Wegman

No, it’s a terrible reason. And you just explained why: Donald Trump. If ever there was a candidate who should have been stopped by what we think the Electoral College was designed to do, it was Donald Trump in 2016. But the reverse happened. So the reality is that the Electoral College has never really worked as a firewall against unfit candidates because it’s a fundamentally partisan institution. The 2016 election ought to put an end to this argument forever.

Sean Illing

There’s at least one way to effectively end the Electoral College without technically abolishing it. Can you explain what that is?

Jesse Wegman

It’s called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, and it’s a quite simple way of using the Electoral College that the framers designed as a means to a popular vote. It’s not an end-run around the college, as people like to call it. It draws on the Constitution, which gives states almost total authority to award their electors however they want. So the idea is that states who join it agree to award all of their electors to whichever candidate wins the most votes in the nation, not in their state, which is how most states do it now. It’s an elegant and clever solution to this problem.

Sean Illing

Do you think we reach a breaking point where the status quo loses its legitimacy and we’re confronted with a genuine political crisis?

Jesse Wegman

People often say to me, “Well, how is this ever going to happen? Republicans have to get on board, and they’re never going to do it.” Everybody always has a reason for explaining why this isn’t going to work. I think that overestimates the American people’s tolerance for a system in which majority rule is violated repeatedly. If this happens again in 2020, I think you’ll see a much stronger push to get the compact passed in a few other states that are right now either considering it or may soon.

We’re in a moment where people are thinking about constitutional reform in a way that they rarely do, and there’s an openness to changing our basic structures and to question our basic assumptions about how government works. The way we pick our president is one of the prime places where those new ways of thinking could really lead to concrete change.


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