Candidates may have a point in trying to scrap the Electoral College

voting booths

In a presidential election, voters like these in Berkeley will find their vote counts for less than a voter in Wyoming. Scrapping the Electoral College could change that. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

Increasingly, Democratic candidates hoping to run against Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election have suggested it’s time to change or scrap the electoral college.

Just in the last week, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg have all said the winner-take-all Electoral College as outlined in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution has outlived its usefulness.

Twice in the last five presidential elections Republican candidates have lost the popular vote, but won the presidency. George W. Bush received about 500,000 fewer votes than Al Gore, but had a 271-266 win in the Electoral College. The Trump-Clinton faceoff in 2016 was even more extreme, with Clinton carrying the popular vote by almost 3 million, but Trump capturing the Electoral College 304-227.

Is it, in fact, time for the Electoral College to become a historical relic? Henry Brady, dean of UC Berkeley’s Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy, says it already is.

“My basic take is that the Electoral College is a totally vestigial institution,” Brady says.

Brady has deep expertise in these matters. His career has centered around the study of voting systems, and he weighed in during the Gore-Bush showdown in 2000, serving as an expert witness in Palm Beach County before a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to voting recounts and handed the presidency to Bush.

“The founders thought that the Electoral College would be something like the College of Cardinals,” Brady says, referring to the system the Catholic Church uses to elect a new pope. The church’s cardinals gather in the Vatican and meet until agreement on a successor to the papacy is reached. “They thought of it as a college of very smart people who would choose the best possible president.”

The system thus envisioned has not fulfilled that intent since the rise of political parties in 1800, when Federalist Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, from the Democrat-Republican party, ran against each other to replace George Washington, Brady says.

US Constitution

Contrary to some of the talk concerning the upcoming presidential election, the U.S. Constitution would not have to be altered to mitigate the impact of the Electoral College.

Over time, he says, the Electoral College has served to marginalize states such as California and Texas, sidelining issues important to those states. California is going to vote Democratic. Texas is going to vote Republican. With those two facts unmovable, candidates concentrate on the dozen or so “swing states.”

Brady lists 11 swing states from the 2016 election — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. The election then becomes a battle — not for 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, but for those 11 states.

According to nationalpopularvote.com, 94 percent of all campaigning in the 2016 election took place in just 12 states, with Minnesota also on Brady’s list of 11.

“If these states have particular kinds of issues that differ from the nation as a whole, then those issues have an outsized impact on the election,” Brady says.

With most of the 2016 swing states in the Rust Belt — areas of the Midwest and Northeast where factories are old and closed — issues like the loss of manufacturing jobs, coal and farm subsidies got major nationwide play.

“If you are a candidate, the way things are now, you don’t need to know what’s going on in Texas and California,” Brady says. “The candidates don’t need to care about those states. They don’t go to those states, and they don’t have to consider the issues those states care about. They go to the Rust Belt states that are swing states. And there isn’t as much concern about, say, the environment, which is a huge issue for California.”

Some politicians dismiss attempts to take down the Electoral College as a fool’s errand, arguing that there’s no practical way to get an amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified by the required 37 states, but Brady says they are missing the point: Each state legislature is empowered to determine how to apportion its own electoral votes.

Already two states, Maine and Nebraska, do not have winner-take-all elections. That being the case, Brady says, there’s no Constitutional reason why U.S. presidential elections have to maintain the status quo. He points to the quiet revolution that nationalpopularvote.com and others are fomenting.

“Scholars I’ve talked to say that Article II, Section 1 stands; it says that the states can do what they want,” Brady says. “Right now, Maine and Nebraska have mechanisms where they don’t cast the vote en masse. They split them up within the state. There’s no reason other states couldn’t do that.”

Henry Brady

Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy, says the Electoral College has outlived its usefulness.

Or, other states could do something different. That’s what the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) is all about. It’s an agreement among some of the states and the District of Columbia to award the winner of the popular vote with all their electoral votes.

Before the agreement would come into play, the move would need to have enough electoral votes to get to 270. The 12 states and the District of Columbia now have 181 electoral votes. Together they have 33.6 percent of the Electoral College and 67 percent of the votes needed to give the compact legal standing.

And there is legislation pending in 15 other states with another 158 electoral votes. Theoretically, it would take just five more states to sign up — Florida (29 electoral college votes), Ohio (18), Georgia (16) and North Carolina (15), plus either Arizona or Indiana (11 each) to get to 270 and make the national presidential vote a popular vote, no Constitutional amendment needed.

Brady likes this plan for several reasons, not the least of which is that each voter’s ballot will not be weighted by where he or she lives. The balance between a voter in Wyoming, which has three electoral votes for a population of less than 600,000, and California, which has 55 electoral votes for a population of almost 40 million, is out of whack. Individual votes from Wyoming carry 3.6 times more weight than those from California, thanks to the Electoral College.

“The current system is biased in favor of small states,” he says. “If we are really a democracy, then we have to figure out how we can have California and Texas involved. When they aren’t, it’s a tremendous defect in the system.

“There are many who say the Electoral College is the answer. I see that as a very odd answer. That’s like saying democracy isn’t working, so let’s try autocracy. It’s clear that the real answer has to be, `Let’s fix democracy.’

“It’s clear that the best answer is to get better voting systems. So, let’s get better voting systems.”