As we wrap up another presidential election, we have again become familiarized with the odd workings of the Electoral College. While both sides of the political spectrum have had qualms with this centuries-old institution, the big question remains: why the hell do we use it, anyway?
The central issue with the Electoral College is not the disproportionate amount of power given to smaller states. After all, Electoral College winners have only lost the national popular vote five times in our nation’s history. Rather, it is, as Jesse Wegman of The New York Times has suggested, the winner-take-all laws at the state level.
These laws, on the books everywhere in the U.S. but Nebraska and Maine, require that a state’s electoral votes go to whichever candidate wins the popular vote in that state. The result is the classic map of red and blue states we see on TV every four years, and the effective disenfranchisement of millions of voters across the country. And it will only get worse. In places like Texas, a Republican stronghold, changing demographics will likely make the state blue in a few cycles. That’s millions of Republican voters effectively silenced, guaranteeing Democratic victory for decades to come.
With most of the country classified as reliably red or blue, we tend to fixate on a handful of states that may go either way. These swing states become the focus of both candidates and the media, as these states effectively decide the election. Candidates tend to pander toward issues that matter for the citizens of these states, at the detriment of the rest of the country. For them, the majority of states are a given.
You may be drawn to see this as entirely reasonable. We assume that because some states tend to go a particular way, they must have fairly strong political consensuses. But this isn’t true.
For example, Colorado is generally considered to be a safe blue state. But in 2016, the difference between votes for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was less than 140,000. If we add the votes that went to third party candidates and Trump, we find that it outnumbers the votes that went to Clinton by more than 100,000 votes.
It’s the same in some red states. Arizona, which has gone blue only twice since 1952 (if you include 2020), had the same phenomenon in 2016. If we add the votes that went to Clinton and third party candidates, we find the majority of Arizonans didn’t want Trump, by a margin of nearly 70,000 votes.
The solution is to move to a national popular vote. This system gives people in reliably one-party states, which is most of the country, a voice in presidential elections. It frees people from voting for a “lesser evil.” It breaks down the two-party system for the highest office in the land and forces candidates to consider the needs of all Americans.
The intuitive path is a constitutional amendment, but these are so difficult to pass that we only have 27 of them. The other is an interstate compact, already adopted by 15 states and D.C., to give their electoral votes to whoever wins the national popular vote. Together these states comprise 196 electoral votes, 73 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency. While some scholars are debating the legality of this solution, it gives Americans their best shot at achieving the power over the presidency even James Madison envisioned.
Ensure your vote counts. Move to abolish the Electoral College.
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