Electoral College in spotlight — again
| November 10, 2020 1:00 AM
Another close presidential election, with another campaign to eliminate the Electoral College on its heels. Because looking at the electoral vote tally, the win looks bigger than it is.
At least this year, the electoral vote winner also has the highest popular vote count. That’s unlike the 2016 presidential election, when the loser had more actual votes than the president-elect. That year President Trump became the fifth U.S. president to win an election even though more Americans voted for his opponent.
But in our system, the electoral vote wins.
How does that make sense? Can the Electoral College be legally eliminated? As mobile as modern Americans are, should it?
One-party dominated and low-population states such as Idaho fade in campaign neglect, compared to “swing vote” battlegrounds where candidates must focus to win. Plus, as recent, close elections illustrate, electoral vote tallies don’t reflect an evenly split nation.
Is this an effective, and reflective, way to elect a president, or does it make “one man, one vote” a mockery?
What is it?
The Electoral College process, a concept borrowed from the Old Roman Empire, is a result of the Founding Fathers’ constitutional compromise in Article II, Section 1. Some wanted the president elected by Congress, others only by a select group (i.e., landed, white males).
None of them trusted the “uninformed masses.”
Today the Electoral College has 538 “electors,” whose numbers correspond with each state’s number of House Members in Congress (four in Idaho, ergo four electoral votes). A majority of those — 270 — nets a presidential win.
Who chooses electors and what’s their role?
State law varies, but generally political parties and candidates choose electors. So when you vote for president, you’re also voting for that candidate’s electors. In December following an election, they meet to officially cast their votes in winner-take-all fashion, according to the state’s popular vote majority. Those results are sent to Congress and the National Archives. Finally, in early January, a joint session of Congress conducts an official tally and a president is formally declared.
How could we change it?
The National Archives reports that over the past 200 years, more than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. None were successful.
Amending the Constitution can happen two ways:
(1) Congress could propose an amendment by joint resolution, passed by a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate; or
(2) Two-thirds of state legislatures could call a constitutional convention. So far, not one of the 27 existing Amendments has been proposed by convention.
The President has no constitutional role in this. With either option, three-fourths of states would then have to ratify the amendment.
But there’s a third alternative, which may be the most likely scenario.
A state-level movement to work around this amendment process is gaining momentum. Fifteen states as well as Washington, D.C., have passed a bill joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), a brainchild of law professors in 2001. Nine more states have passed it in at least one legislative chamber.
These have committed to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, if and only if enough states pass it into law — meaning when NPVIC states control over 50 percent of electoral votes anyway.
So it only kicks in if it would make a difference.
Sort of an end-run around the Electoral College process, but only when it matters and without formally eliminating it. So far they’re up to 196 electoral votes (with more pending), or just under 73 percent of their goal.
As we’ve seen in past elections, the presidential candidate with the most votes can still lose an election. Individual voters are thus dwarfed in party shadows, especially in states heavily dominated by one party.
Does that make the system undemocratic? Unrepresentative? At minimum the current system favors political parties more than it does Jane Citizen.
On the other hand, critics of change point out a direct vote — while it feels more honest — also has disadvantages. Think urban vs. rural — an apt argument in mostly rural Idaho or Montana, for example. States with bigger urban areas would weigh more heavily than sparser, less populated areas and states. In some such cases, goes the counter-argument, they already do because they have more electoral votes anyway.
Another question is participation. Will making votes count more directly erode voter apathy? Would changing entice more people to vote? Considering the record turnout this election, perhaps we’re getting there either way.
Realistically, most voters bothered simply to voice their choice for president, with less attention to other races. Will they and eligible non-voters care more about local and state elections, which tend to affect our daily lives more, if they know their chief executive better reflects their choice?
Hope springs. For more information see Archives.gov and Nationalpopularvote.com.
Sholeh Patrick, J.D., is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.