Here’s the only good thing you can say about the Electoral College: Those of us who have been intently studying the electoral count map and its red and blue states following Tuesday’s election could now easily ace a U.S. geography quiz or a “Jeopardy” category.
“I’ll take Tipping-Point States for $800, Alex.”
But as a method of determining who has the mandate of the people to serve as the president of the United States, the Electoral College is an antiquated and undemocratic invention of Constitutional Convention delegates who sought it as a safety valve against what they saw as an uninformed electorate.
When the electoral votes are in agreement with the popular vote the college is a bothersome redundancy. Had the winner of Tuesday’s election been determined by the popular vote, we would have known that former Vice President Joe Biden had won the election that evening, at the latest by Wednesday morning. We would have been spared the slow-drip of ballot-counting reports from a handful of states that turned the cable news channels into joyless multi-day telethons, replacing Jerry Lewis and Ed McMahon with Wolf Blitzer and Chris Wallace.
When the Electoral College does come into play, it negates the will of the U.S. voters, replacing the simple-majority ethic of “one person, one vote” that is used for nearly every other election in the nation with a contrived and unbalanced winner-take-all system — except in Maine and Nebraska — that apportions votes based on each state’s number of members of Congress.
In Tuesday’s election, the nation may have only narrowly avoided yet another decision — as happened most recently in 2016 and 2000 — where a few thousand votes in a handful of states would have tipped the election to the loser of the popular vote. As of Friday afternoon Biden led the popular vote by more than 4 million votes and had garnered just over 50 percent of the electorate.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton had more than 2.8 million votes above that of Donald Trump, yet lost the Electoral College tally, 306-232.
The Electoral College has been defended, weakly, as a way of preventing the passions of an electorate — then less connected to information when first adopted — from making a poor choice for president; or that it ensures that states with smaller populations are not ignored by presidential candidates during a campaign. Or that, perversely, voters in smaller states deserve a greater say in the outcome of the presidential election than voters in states with larger populations.
The Electoral College was borne out of the paternalistic opinions of delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention who had little trust in the ability of voters to responsibly choose the president. They held more faith in state lawmakers to make that call, initially. By the early 19th century, the authority switched from legislators to voters, but only on the current “winner-take-all” contrivance, with the authority vested now in electors selected by the political parties.
The college’s origins are further complicated by the compromise that allowed the southern states that permitted slavery to include slaves in the count apportioning electors, but only as three-fifths of a person.
As to the theory that smaller states at least get some attention during presidential campaigns, only 17 states, regardless of size, saw the bulk of campaign visits from the candidates for the Trump and Biden campaigns. Of more than 200 such events, 47 were in Pennsylvania, 31 were in Florida and 25 were in North Carolina, according to National Popular Vote, which advocates against the Electoral College.
And even the theory that the Electoral College protects the interests of smaller states over larger states — even if that were somehow just — is flawed. A University of Washington applied mathematics professor has crunched the numbers following the 2016 presidential election and found that the votes cast in mid-sized states carried the least weight compared to the votes in other states. Dale Durran, in a commentary in Sunday’s Herald on Page B6, found that the “weight” of each person’s vote is further affected by voter turnout in a particular state; the greater the turnout in each state, the less weight that each vote in that state carries in the Electoral College tally.
There are ways to do away with the college. A Constitutional amendment, with approval from two-thirds majorities in U.S. House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of the states, could eliminate or amend it. A revolt by so-called faithless electors following the 2016 election, attempted to free electors from each party’s pledged nominee to change the result, a ploy that failed and was ultimately rejected by state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.
A third option, pursued by National Popular Vote, is asking state legislatures to pass a law that would award all of a state’s electors not to the winner in that state but to the candidate who wins the popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. To enact the change, states representing 270 electoral votes — the same threshold that determines the presidency — would have to the adopt the popular vote legislation.
Washington state, with its 12 electoral votes, adopted the legislation in 2009. Oregon, New Mexico, Delaware and Colorado — totaling 24 electoral votes — last year joined 12 other states that had earlier joined the pact for a total of 196 electoral votes, 74 votes shy of 270. Colorado voters on Tuesday further strengthened the pact by ratifying that state’s legislation.
The legislation has passed at least one legislative chamber in another nine states for a total of 88 votes. And Arizona, with six electors, has passed the legislation in both chambers, only to have it vetoed by its governor.
Those states and others should adopt the legislation or put it before their own voters and relegate the Electoral College’s dominance of the U.S. presidential election to the U.S. history category on “Jeopardy.”