Abolishing The Electoral College Would Be More Complicated Than It May Seem

Listen Now

Most people in America want the Electoral College gone, and they want to select a president based on who gets the most votes nationally, polls say.

Democratic presidential candidates are weighing in too.

"Every vote matters," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in Mississippi on Monday. "And the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting and that means get rid of the electoral college."

That line garnered one of her largest roars of applause for the evening.

Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke said there is a "lot of wisdom" in the idea and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., also said she's open to it.

The politicians are tapping into what's become a popular position with many voters, especially Democrats. In the U.S., 65 percent of adults think whoever wins the popular vote should hold the nation's highest office, according to an Atlantic/PRRI poll last year.

Under the current system, voters in each state cast their ballots for electors, of which 270 are necessary to win. So it's possible for a candidate to win more votes overall across the country than a rival but not be inaugurated because of insufficient support from the Electoral College: a scenario that has occurred twice in the past two decades.

But experts say reforming this practice isn't likely anytime soon for a number of reasons. First, there's the Constitutional problem.

The amendments

Fully overhauling the way the president is selected would take a Constitutional amendment, which would require the votes of two-thirds of the U.S. House of Representatives, two-thirds of the Senate, and three-fourths of the states.

Support of that magnitude has become rare for anything in a sharply divided United States. An amendment hasn't been adopted since the 27th, in 1992, and one hasn't been adopted relatively quickly since the 26th, which took 100 days from proposal to adoption in 1971.

President Trump once supported abolishing the Electoral College — he previously felt it was a "total disaster for democracy" — but since his 2016 presidential victory over Hillary Clinton, in which Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, but Trump received 304 electoral votes, he has changed his mind.

Now, Trump feels the Electoral College is "far better for the U.S.A." as he wrote Tuesday on Twitter.

That position, shared by many Republicans, makes it highly unlikely that there would be sufficient support for changing the system.

"There's no realistic chance of a Constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College," said Jacob Levy, a professor of political theory at McGill University.

The state way

There may, however, be another way.

A number of states have signed onto a pact that guarantees their Electoral College votes to the winner of the popular vote, no matter the outcome in their individual states.

The compact would only go into effect once the number of states involved surpasses the 270 Electoral College vote threshold that is required to win the presidency.

Today the pact has the support of states — and Washington D.C. — that total 181 electoral votes, largely those that have gone for Democrats in recent years.

The pact raises questions of its own for democracy: It creates a situation in which voters in, for example, Colorado, may cast most of their votes for the Democrat in a presidential race — but the state might wind up giving its electors to the Republican depending on the national outcome.

That might invite legal challenges from candidates or voters' groups if it took place.

The cases for and against

Supporters of a national popular vote argue something must be done; the Electoral College disproportionately inflates the influence of rural areas while undervaluing the votes of cities. That, critics say, means devaluing the votes of many non-white voters too.

"It really does over-represent some sparsely populated states, and it provides some skew and bias to our system that I just don't think is healthy anymore," said Paul Gronke, a political scientist at Reed College.

Gronke notes, however, that there would be major administrative challenges if the U.S. ever got to the point of switching to a national popular vote.

Would the federal government get into the business of administering the elections, or leave that up to state and local officials, as it does today? Could Washington administer a national recount in the event of a close result?

"How would that work?" Gronke asks. "You look at the Florida situation we had in 2000 — that already took a lot of time and effort, but imagine if that was done across the country. It's just not clear how you could do that."

Gary Gregg, who leads the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, says that if today's system over-privileges rural states, a national popular vote would be just as unfair in the opposite direction.

Trump made a similar argument earlier this week, warning that "smaller states & then entire Midwest would end up losing all power."

Gregg says that change would radicalize politics.

"The game will not be any longer to be a [politician who is] liberal but be able to appeal to a rural Ohioan," he said. "The game will be: Be a liberal — to the extent I can maximize votes in major urban centers."

Jacob Levy, of McGill University, disagreed with that argument.

"Precisely what it does is proportionately advantages where the people are," Levy said. "And places where there are more people become more important when you're counting votes."

Still, Levy said if he had to bet on whether the U.S. will still be using the Electoral College in 20 years — he thinks it will.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.