When twice in less than a generation the U.S. presidency is awarded to the winner of the Electoral College tally but not the winner of the popular vote — as now as appears to have happened in the 2000 and the 2016 presidential elections — then it’s time to reconsider that institution.
First, this point: Our earlier “no whining” rule stands. We are not suggesting that Donald Trump has not fairly won election to the White House. He did so under the current and Constitutional rules.
As of Thursday, Trump leads in the electoral tally 279 to Clinton’s 228. He needed 270 to win, even though Hillary Clinton now holds a lead of more than 200,000 votes and is likely to add to that number. Out of nearly 120 million votes, 200,000 is a small margin, but in all other races — local, state and federal — we award the office by direct election, to the candidate securing at least 50 percent of the vote plus 1.
Throughout our nation’s history the Electoral College has rarely been an issue. Before 2000 and 2016, a split between the electoral and popular vote happened only two other times, in 1876 and 12 years later in 1888, but that history has obscured the reality that presidents are not elected directly.
The Electoral College, which awards electors to each state based on the same rationale used to determine the size of each state’s delegation in the House of Representatives, plus the two senators, results in a roughly proportional system based on each state’s population. But that proportional system, because electoral votes are “winner take all,” leaves open the possibility that a certain slate of states, as we now see with the shift in the “rust belt” states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, favored Trump even though Clinton won more popular votes throughout the nation.
The system’s backstory is uncomfortable, made as a compromise during the Constitutional Convention. It was created out of a concern that many Americans lacked the information to make an informed choice in presidential elections. Further, it was a way to balance state and federal power and allowed a nod to smaller Southern states, whose populations included slaves who, of course, could not vote. The unsavory compromise in determining the number of electors for each state was to count each slave but only as three-fifths of a person.
There are advantages to the Electoral College. It provides, as we’ve seen with this election, certainty in the outcome. An election decided by some 200,000 votes would likely be contested and require recounts in a number of states. And that certainty eliminates the need for a run-off election should either candidate fail to secure a majority of the popular vote.
But there are problems with the Electoral College, particularly in that it can discourage voters who know they are bucking the trend in the rest of their state. Would Trump have garnered more votes in Washington state had his supporters known they wouldn’t have to overcome a certain electoral victory for Clinton in this state?
Most of all, there’s this: An institution that contradicts the will of the people, and has now done so twice in the last five presidential elections, can’t be considered Constitutional.
Eliminating the Electoral College or changing how it operates would require a Constitutional amendment, with approval from two-thirds majorities in U.S. House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of the states. That’s a steep hill to climb, made steeper by Republican control of Congress and many state legislatures.
There is public support for closing the college. Gallup reported in 2011, 11 years after the 2000 election, that 62 percent of Americans favored amending the Constitution to switch to a direct popular vote.
Unlike our 18th-century counterparts, we have the information we need to be trusted with direct election of our president; we can turn off the safety valve of the Electoral College.