U.S Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is competing for the Democratic nomination for president, said this week that she supports “getting rid of the electoral college,” and having the presidency decided by a national popular vote.
She was quickly attacked by many who think this is a “radical idea.” Let us pause for a moment and examine that hypothesis.
First, in polling over the last few years, a large majority of voters support deciding the presidency by popular vote as opposed to the Electoral College. Support for the popular vote has risen as Americans have witnessed, in the last 20 years, two presidents win the Oval Office while losing the national popular vote. The difference in 2016 was greatest -- Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 3 million, but lost the Electoral College to Donald Trump.
Second, the argument that the Electoral College ensures that candidates travel to smaller states as well as large ones isn’t true, and is no longer happening. In the 2020 elections, campaigns and candidates from both major parties are expected to concentrate nearly all their time and efforts in only 5 or 6 states, which represent less than 20 percent of people who will vote for president. Therefore, 44 or 45 states, large and small, will be virtually ignored in the process as it is now.
If the 2020 election were to be decided by a national popular vote instead of the Electoral College, candidates and campaigns in the general election would have to completely refashion their strategies.
In all likelihood, they would have to run a national campaign with national advertising buys where all Americans would be involved in the debate over who the next president should be. To reallocate resources, the campaigns would have to put time and effort into at least 40 states, representing 90 percent of the country’s voters.
In a national popular vote effort, campaigns would have to spend time in places like Texas, California, New York, Louisiana, Washington, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, George, North Carolina, etc. Under the current system, candidates only go to those states to fundraise.
A popular vote effort would have to appeal to voters in urban, suburban, ex-urban, and rural communities of America. And campaigns would have to concentrate on both turning out their bases, as well as persuading swing voters.
If you are someone who is an independent and wants choices in the presidential race other than Democrat or Republican, ending the Electoral College removes a major impediment for an independent presidential candidacy. It is much easier for an independent to win the popular vote than it is for that candidate to win the Electoral College.
Third, while passing a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College is highly unlikely -- the bar of three-fourths of states passing an amendment in this polarized environment is almost impossible -- there are constitutional ways to make the presidential election more representative of the nation as a whole, involving more voters from more areas. Already, a number of states have signed on to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, in which a state’s electoral votes would be assigned to whoever won the national popular vote. Though they are not yet at the required number of states necessary to total 270 electoral votes, there is a path to get their politically in the years ahead.
Another way to make the popular vote matter, while retaining the Electoral College, is to adopt the Maine and Nebraska model. Those states assign electoral votes by a combination of two statewide and one for each congressional district in their states. A presidential candidate wins one electoral vote for every house district they win. This would need to be combined with efforts to fix gerrymandering and expanding their number of members in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Today, each House member represents on average about 750,000 people which has become both unwieldy and less responsive to constituents. Keep in mind, in 1789 after the first apportionment, 105 House members each represented roughly 37,000 people, according to the Pew Research Center. The number of representatives has increased after nearly every census apportionment until it reached 435 members in 1913, when the average district size was at approximately 200,000 people. A law was passed in 1911 limiting the size of the House to 435 members, and it has remained for more than 100 years. Our founders foresaw a rise in House members as America grew in population, and Congress could pass a law to expand the House to a more representative number.
So while abolishing the Electoral College as Warren suggests may be near impossible, her statement that a president should be elected by national popular vote is not radical, it is actually mainstream.
We can get closer to the national popular vote having greater weight in presidential elections and having a president represent all Americans in ways that don’t require amending the Constitution. These fixes will make presidential candidates run more diverse campaigns, and campaign in all cities and communities of our country.
That will help unify us more as a country, and would likely lead to more informed public policy. How can anyone be against that outcome?