Senator Elizabeth Warren may have said it best, “Call me old-fashioned, but I think the person who gets the most votes should win.” But among the electoral college, some votes are far more important than others. The electoral college is indeed an undemocratic travesty.
It is time for us to move to a national referendum.
Many proponents of the electoral college point to its anti-democratic character as an advantage, arguing that it serves as a bulwark against so-called tyranny of the majority. In reality, however, the institution enables minority tyranny which allows political factions to consolidate their rule by targeting a small group of voters. For example, it is mathematically possible to win the electoral college with less than 22 percent of the population’s vote! This is an extreme case, but the fact remains that a Wyoming voter under Electoral College has nearly four times the power of a California voter. By creating artificially close results, the electoral college increases the chance that those results are close enough that the result can be influenced by unelected judges by 40 times. No wonder 61 percent of Americans support abolition of the electoral college, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Electoral college defenders also argue that it will force candidates to form broad coalitions and camp anywhere. In 2016, 94 percent of campaign stops in the general election were concentrated in just 12 states, while a total of 24 states were skipped. Compare this to gubernatorial elections, where every voter has a role. Candidates have tremendous incentive to visit both rural and urban communities as Stacey Abrams visited all 159 counties in Georgia during her 2018 run.
The most enduring myth about the electoral college is, of course, that it was carefully crafted by the drafters of the constitution, and so we shouldn’t manipulate it. In fact, the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was bogged down: one faction wanted Congress to elect the president and the other group pushed for direct elections. To bring both sides together, James Madison proposed a compromise: a group of elite voters who would broker the referendum and defect if they found the people’s election unsuitable. The original draftsman system was soon overhauled by the 12th Amendment, which split the voting process for President and Vice President. Since then, more than 700 bills and amendments have been offered to replace the electoral college, with many passing one congress house but languishing in the other.
Even modern commentators tend to downplay the extent to which race and slavery contributed to the drafters ‘creation of the electoral college, which in fact influenced the history of whitewash: From the considerations that went into the drafters’ calculus were Race and slavery perhaps the most important. And from the outset, the electoral college has drawn no shortage of lessons about the impact of racial entitlement in selecting the president. It is clear that more than two centuries after its intent to strengthen southern whites, the electoral college continues to do just that. Our current system is seriously detrimental to black voters and dilutes their political power. Any criticism of the electoral college must include a cold-eyed understanding of its core role in the long-standing disempowerment of black voters.
It would be difficult to drop the electoral college by changing the constitution. But there is another way – one that is not based on Congress. It’s called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and was introduced in 2006. As part of the pact, states undertake to cast their votes to the candidate who wins the national referendum. To date, 15 states and the District of Columbia have merged, representing 196 votes of the 270 votes required for the pact to go into effect.
This pact would lead us into a new political era. A true “one person, one vote” system would finally give people in states like Texas a compelling reason to vote and increase the turnout. The parties would be encouraged to build infrastructure everywhere: rural communities, urban centers and all places in between. What is important is that this would also mean the end of minority rule – no more stacked courts to intervene on behalf of the loser in tight elections.
However, the Compact is not bulletproof. It would almost certainly face legal challenges, and even after crossing the 270-vote threshold, states could still withdraw. In addition, federal and state legislators will undoubtedly have a long list of priorities in the new year, from Covid-19 to economic stimuli and climate change. However, if we want a strong, stable democracy, we have to get rid of the electoral college, and that starts with the completion of the pact. So after the end of this year’s vote, let us begin our work on establishing a national referendum.