Long-overdue calls to abolish the Electoral College are finally being heard

What do Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush and Donald Trump have in common?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The movement to get rid of the Electoral College is having a moment. For the past several weeks, pundits and politicians alike have renewed calls to do away with this 18th-century anachronism and award the presidency to the candidate who wins the most votes.

With Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller Report dealing a powerful blow to the always-unlikely scenario that Congress would impeach President Trump and remove him from office, the call for Electoral College abolition is likely to grow louder. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has made it a centerpiece of her campaign. Her competitors Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg agree, while Kamala Harris is leaning in that direction as well.

Buttigieg wrote in a recent commentary for CNN.com that “we need to re-evaluate the role of the Electoral College, which has — in my short lifetime — overruled the popular vote twice. It should be a commonsense position that the person who gets the most votes is the person who wins the presidency.”

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie has been especially thoughtful on the topic, nothing that former Maine governor Paul LePage had it exactly right when he complained recently that doing away with the Electoral College would diminish the power of white supremacy. (OK, the notoriously racist LePage didn’t put it quite that way.)

As Bouie argued, and as I wrote here more than two years ago, the Electoral College came about as a way to grant disproportionate power to the slave states of the South so that they would agree to ratify the Constitution. How? Let’s look at the numbers. Each state gets an electoral vote for every House member, plus two bonus votes for their senators. Before the Civil War, the slave states received an artificial — and morally reprehensible — boost in House and Electoral College representation because each slave counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining the number of that state’s House seats. That advantage disappeared after the Civil War, but the two extra votes for senators continue to give states with the lowest population disproportionate power. For instance, in 2016 voters in tiny Wyoming had nearly four times as much influence as those in California.

There are some myths surrounding the Electoral College that need to be put to rest. One is that the founders favored it because they opposed direct democracy. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby uncorked that one recently, writing, “The framers of the Constitution devised it deliberately as a check on direct democracy” because they did not want “important national decisions to be driven by unbridled public emotion, populist demagoguery, or the passions of the mob.”

There may have been something to that in the early days of the republic. But the problem with this theory today is that the reality is exactly the opposite of what Jacoby describes. In fact, the president is elected via direct democracy. The electors in each state are not free to exercise their independent judgment and stand fast against “the passions of the mob.” In many cases it is actually illegal for electors to oppose the will of their state’s voters. Not that there’s much chance of that happening given that they are chosen because they’re party loyalists. So we end up with the worst of both worlds — direct democracy, but distorted to favor rural states over the places where people actually live.

Another fallacy is that we’ve always lived with the reality of the Electoral College, candidates have always understood that they need to build a broad coalition of states, and that popular-vote winners who lose in the electoral count have no one but themselves to blame.

Unlike the direct-democracy argument, there is a little bit of truth to this one. “In the Trump era, Democrats are in a perpetual state of panic,” National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote recently in Politico. “They should remember that the electoral map is always changing. Before 2016, it was thought the Electoral College favored Democrats. It shouldn’t be beyond their conceiving that they can win again under the long-established rules of America’s foundational governing document.”

But here’s the problem with that argument:Before George W. Bush’s narrow, controversial victory over Al Gore in 2000, the last time a candidate became president despite losing the popular vote was 1888, when Republican Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland, the incumbent Democrat.

That’s 112 years. Surely the public could be forgiven for thinking that the Electoral College — to the extent that they thought about it at all — was some vestigial appendage from the past that they need not worry about. Now, thanks to shifting population patterns, any Democratic candidate starts out with a disadvantage because so many liberal voters now live in a few blue, underrepresented bastions such as New York, California, and Massachusetts.

So what are we going to do about this miserable state of affairs? One possible solution is an interstate compact being pushed by an organization called National Popular Vote, which would require each state’s electors to support the candidate who won the most votes nationwide. But this strikes me as a fool’s mission, as there is no more incentive for small states to join the compact than there would be for them to support a constitutional amendment to do away with the Electoral College altogether.

And, of course, a popular, broad-based campaign can win both a majority of the popular vote and the Electoral College, thus putting the issue on the backburner. Barack Obama did it twice. So did Ronald Reagan.

Ultimately, though, we need to come to a consensus that nothing good comes of a presidency that was flawed right from the start by losing the popular vote. Bush was unable to unite the country except for a brief moment after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Trump’s problems hardly need to be laid out here. But doing something about the Electoral College will require a bigger politics than we have at the moment. I’ll choose to be optimistic and hope that sometime in the not-too-distant future we can embrace something better.

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