Yes, it’s time for another tirade against the Electoral College

I ask permission to rant (once again) against the Electoral College: to explain at least one reason why Republicans love it so much; mention (again) an elegant solution to your problems that aren’t making much progress; and suggest an (undemocratic) reason why Republicans might oppose it.

Let’s get the partisan joke out of the way. Five men have “won” the presidential election by losing the popular vote. None of them were Democrats. Four of them were Republicans. (The other was Whig, the party that no longer exists and which became the Republican Party in the mid-19th century.)

Two of the Republican loser-winners were fairly recent. One of them was Donald Trump, who we’ll get back to in a moment.

You can call complaining about this stuff partisan sour grapes if you feel the need to dismiss it, but I don’t think that’s honest. You can also argue that the Electoral College, as currently constituted, is biased in favor of the Republicans (I think it obviously is). What I don’t think you can do is make a fair, rational, or intellectually honest case that it’s a net positive feature of our system that allows the loser of the popular vote to win the presidential election, which, as I mentioned, has happened five times twice recently.

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Background: The United States, often thought of as a democracy, is actually not. It is a republic, and it could be called a “democratic republic”, because it depends on elections. It wasn’t so much up to them in the early years of American “democracy,” when members of the US House of Representatives were the only federal officials subject to a popular vote (and even then, in most places, only white men with property could vote).

To summarize the biggest anti-democratic elements of America’s first century: the vote in many states was limited to white men with property; US senators were chosen by state legislatures, not by the voting public; presidents were (and still are) elected indirectly by the Electoral College (although the early electors weren’t as party-goers as they are now); and Supreme Court justices are (and always have been) appointed to life terms but nonetheless have the power to overrule elected branches on what legislation is permissible.

Put all of that together and you’ll see why I say the United States hasn’t really been a democracy for much of its history. And unelected officials (starting with Supreme Court justices) still have enormous power. But the power of unelected officials has a deep history in our poor, dear nation, specifically in the United States Senate.

For the first century and a half of constitutional history (which is most of our history), senators were not “elected” directly by voters but indirectly by state legislatures. That was changed by a constitutional amendment in the early 20th century. Since that change, every feature of the US federal system (aside from the chief justices) is subject to at least some input from the electorate, but perhaps not as much as you think.

As you well know, the presidency, although subject to the election of “electors” state by state, retains the possibility of being “won” by the loser of the national popular vote thanks to the peculiarities of the Electoral College. I’m not going to go into those quirks. You know most of them.

The first popular vote loser to win the presidency was John Quincy Adams in 1824, whose party affiliation changed often during his career, when the party situation was much more fluid. But when JQA “won” the presidency (he finished second, by solid margins, in both the popular vote and Andrew Jackson’s electoral vote), Adams identified with a party called the Democratic-Republican. He later became a Whig.

His opponent, the war hero Jackson, also identified as a “Democratic-Republican,” although he and his large following morphed into the Democratic Party soon after when the new two-party system emerged. (The modern Democratic Party once acknowledged its two founders by calling its annual banquet Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, though many state parties, including the Minnesota DFL party, have changed the name in recent years.)

Regardless, in that 1824 election, Jackson finished a solid first place in both popular and electoral votes. But no one had the majority of electoral votes required by the Constitution. That threw the election to the House.

Quincy Adams made a deal (known in history as the “corrupt deal”) to gain the support of third-place finisher Henry Clay by promising to make Clay secretary of state, a position that, until then, had been the springboard for the presidency. . It worked, and although it was legal, even then it was a scandal.

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The other four win-lose cases were simpler. Instead of getting the most votes nationally, the Republican candidate “won” by getting the most votes in the straight states, especially swing states. The most conspicuous example of this was the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million votes. That was by far the largest popular vote margin for any candidate she lost in the Electoral College.

There may be valid principled arguments in favor of preserving the Electoral College system, although I do not agree with any of them. But when Republicans make such arguments, they are not principled arguments; they are partisan arguments that go against one of the most fundamental elements of democratic elections: the candidate who gets the most votes is supposed to win.

As you know, the Electoral College system is embedded in the Constitution. And each state has electoral votes equal to its delegation in the US House of Representatives, plus two more electoral votes representing the two Senate seats. This makes the Electoral College even more undemocratic because it increases the influence of small states. For example, today the most populous state, California, has more than 60 times the population of the least populous, Wyoming. But because of the two additional electoral votes that don’t reflect population, California’s Electoral College vote is only 18 times that of Wyoming, disproportionately benefiting the cowboy state.

Presumably, the framers of the Constitution thought that this undemocratic overrepresentation of small states was necessary to get small states to ratify the new document and allay their fears of being overwhelmed by the big ones. But now, two and a half centuries later, it only means that Wyoming has about three times as much power over the election of presidents as it would deserve based on population, and states with large populations have less influence than they deserve on a population basis. per capita. . I can’t think of any real justification for this that is consistent with the one person, one vote principle.

Amending the Constitution to address that anti-democratic feature or doing (almost) anything else to change the Electoral College system would require a huge and enduring consensus involving two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. In other words, only thirteen states can block an amendment. Republicans control much more than that, so fixing the Electoral College problem through constitutional amendment is not a promising path.

So what about that “elegant solution” I mentioned? It’s been around for several years and I’ve written about it before: It’s called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. It is basically a solution to the amendment process.

By signing this compact into state law, a state commits to giving its electoral votes to whoever wins the most popular votes across the country. But because of Republican opposition, he has little chance in Republican states. So far, 15 states (all solid Democrats) plus the District of Columbia (solid Democrat) have legislatively signed the interstate compact. In Minnesota, the proposal has passed previous sessions of the state House, but not the state Senate. Versions of it were introduced in both houses of the Legislature in 2021, but it appears to have made no headway. No new states have been signed for three years.

It’s a lovely idea and I hope it finally works, or, better yet, that the entire country gets tired of the many ways the Electoral College system distorts presidential elections before the pigs fly. Me, I’m sick of the way the “swing state” logic dominates presidential elections. With NPV, every vote in the country would count equally, instead of just swing votes in swing states, and America would be guaranteed a president who actually got more votes than his opponent. Quaint, huh?

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