After the second election in 16 years in which the winner of the national popular vote will be denied the presidency, talk has resurfaced about the shortcomings of the Electoral College, the convoluted system by which our chief executive is actually chosen. It is the product of an 18th-century compromise forged over issues that no longer apply and resting on assumptions about the wisdom of the average person we no longer hold, and it has not worked the way it was intended almost from the very beginning.
But abolishing it through a constitutional amendment is generally considered a nonstarter — it would require either a two-thirds vote of both chambers of Congress or a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of state legislatures just to propose such an amendment, and then it would need to be approved by three-fourths of the states. The chances that three-fourths of the states would be upset about the Electoral College at any given time are slim; it’s theoretically possible for a candidate to win the presidency with just 11 big states, but it would require an extremely odd electoral coalition.
There is another way, though. Ten states plus Washington, D.C., have enacted legislation that could lead to a system that leaves the Electoral College intact but ensures that it deliver the presidency to the popular vote winner. This national compact stipulates that as soon as states comprising a majority of the Electoral College — 270 votes — sign on, each will award its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The Constitution allows states to allocate their electors as they choose — the winner-take-all system is not in the Constitution, and Maine and Nebraska have already abandoned it, choosing to split their electoral votes based on who wins in each congressional district.
So far, only blue states have signed on to the plan. But the idea has gotten some traction in places like Oklahoma, a state so red that no presidential candidate pays it any attention, and in some swing states, including Colorado and Nevada. The 11 jurisdictions that have signed on total 165 electoral votes, nearly two-thirds of the necessary total.
There are good reasons beyond sour grapes to advocate for a change. Leaders of the National Popular Vote movement point to the disproportionate attention presidential candidates pay to a handful of states during the election — and after. According to NPV’s research, battleground states get more federal grants, more federal disaster declarations and more waivers from certain federal regulations. But the biggest reason to ditch the Electoral College is that it violates the principle that each American voter should have an equal say in deciding who is president. Here’s why:
Each state gets a number of Electoral College votes equal to its total representation in Congress — both its representatives and its senators. But because each state gets two senators, no matter its size, voters in the smallest states have disproportionate influence over the outcome. On average, each of the 538 electoral votes should represent just under 600,000 people. But in some places, it takes less than half that to determine an electoral vote. It’s not just Republican-leaning states that are so advantaged; Vermont, Washington, D.C., and Rhode Island all make the list, and Delaware isn’t far behind. Meanwhile, it takes substantially more people than it should to swing an electoral vote in some other states — as much as 20 percent more than it should. And because congressional seats (and, thus, Electoral College votes) are only reapportioned once a decade after the census, the relative power of voters in a state can vary from election to election depending on whether it is losing or gaining population.
That’s why the state where each voter had the least say over who became president this year was deep-red Texas, not solid-blue California.
Notwithstanding the fact that President-elect Donald Trump called the Electoral College “a disaster for democracy” in a 2012 election night tweet (he evidently thought at the time that Mitt Romney would win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College, though he wound up losing both), we don’t expect Republicans to take up the cause until one of their nominees suffers the fate of Clinton and Al Gore. It’s only a matter of time. Had John Kerry convinced 59,301 George W. Bush voters in Ohio to support him instead, he would have taken the presidency in 2004 despite losing the popular vote by 3 million.
This is no way to pick a president, and we can fix it. A petition on change.org calling for members of the Electoral College to vote for Clinton rather than Trump got more than 2 million signatures in under 36 hours, but if people really want change, they should lobby their state legislators to support the Electoral College compact.