Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Mend, if not end, Electoral College -- March 28, 2019 column


President Donald Trump now praises the Electoral College as genius and brilliant, but he wasn’t always a fan.

On Election Night 2012, citizen Trump tweeted the Electoral College was “a disaster for a democracy . . . a total sham and a travesty.”

He thought, mistakenly, that his choice for president, Republican Mitt Romney, would win the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College.

“More votes equals a loss . . . revolution!” Trump later deleted this and several other 

President Barack Obama won both the popular and electoral votes. Four years later, Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, but she lost in the Electoral College.

When we vote for president, we’re actually voting for electors. To win the White House, a candidate needs 270 of the total 538 electoral votes. Trump won 304 to Clinton’s 227. Seven electors voted for others.

Trump says he realizes “the Electoral College is far better for the USA.” But is it?

The Electoral College has been unloved for decades. Author James A. Michener, an elector in 1968, called the college a “time bomb lodged in the heart of the nation.”

He presciently worried that one day “the man who wins the largest popular vote across the nation will not be chosen President, with all the turmoil that this might cause.” Indeed. Except the man was a woman.

Since the ‘60s, Democrats and Republicans have told pollsters they favor the popular vote over the Electoral College, but numerous attempts to amend the Constitution and abolish the college have failed.

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren says she’ll scrap the college as part of a plan to expand voting rights. The current system results in small states being mostly ignored, while swing states get all the attention, she said March 19 at a CNN Town Hall in Mississippi.

“We need to get rid of the Electoral College so that presidential candidates have to ask every American in every part of the country for their vote, not just those in battleground states,” she said.

Democratic contenders Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke also support changing to the popular vote.

Trump warns letting the popular vote prevail would mean “the cities would end up running the country. Smaller states & the entire Midwest would end up losing all power & we can’t let that happen,” he tweeted.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham and other Republicans oppose a constitutional amendment -- but that’s not the only avenue to change the system.

The Constitution determines how many electors a state has: one for each House member and two for the senators. But it does not say how states must allocate their votes.

All but two states use a winner-take-all system, which means most states are not in play. A candidate doesn’t have to win a majority of votes in a state to win all its electoral votes.

“In 2016, Donald Trump won all the electoral votes, totaling 101, in six states where he received less than 50 percent of the popular vote: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (Hillary Clinton won seven states this way),” Edward B. Foley, a law professor at Ohio State, wrote in an essay for Politico in January.

“In reality, the current system works to the detriment of both Republicans and Democrats,” he said. His book, “Presidential Elections and Majority Rule” will be published in December by Oxford University Press.

Nebraska and Maine use a better system, splitting their electoral votes according to  the outcomes statewide and in each of their congressional districts.  

Another approach is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. So far, 12 states and the District of Columbia with 181 electoral votes have pledged their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, ensuring the popular vote winner was also the Electoral College winner.

The compact would kick in only after the total number of Electoral College votes in member states exceeds 270. It likely would be challenged in court.

The Founding Fathers couldn’t agree whether the president should be elected by popular vote or the Congress, and their compromise led to the Electoral College.

That compromise has outlived its usefulness. It’s time to look at ways to minimize its role, whether through the compact or splitting up results by congressional district. 

Either would deliver fairer and more representative presidential elections.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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