Elite Democrats are finally coming out against one of the most profoundly anti-democratic institutions in the U.S. political system — the electoral college — and it’s about time.
It’s not that Democrats as a whole have ever believed in the electoral college. But until now, the ones with the highest profiles and largest megaphones have tended to treat it with resignation. Sure, it’s a ridiculous feature of the system that was intended in the first place to circumvent democracy, but what are you going to do? Amending the Constitution requires the agreement of three-quarters of the states, and the Republican-run states would never sign on because the electoral college gives them an advantage? So why even talk about it?
But today’s Democratic Party is ready to talk about it, because the party is pretty well fed up with resigning itself to the indefensible, even if undoing it would be a challenge. And at a time when Democrats have an ambitious democracy reform agenda, they can’t leave the electoral college out of the discussion.
So it was that on Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called for an end to the electoral college, in addition to advocating a constitutional amendment to protect voting rights. Pete Buttigieg told this blog, “It’s gotta go. We need a national popular vote.” Beto O’Rourke said “there’s a lot of wisdom” in getting rid of it. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) told Jimmy Kimmel, “I’m open to the discussion.” In the coming days, the other candidates will probably be asked about it, and I would be surprised if nearly all of them don’t agree.
Naturally, Republicans are horrified at the thought. And why shouldn’t they be? In two of the past five presidential elections, their candidate got fewer votes but managed to win because of the electoral college. But because they can’t just say “we like it because it gives us an advantage,” they have to come up with something that sounds like a nonpartisan rationale.
But it’s impossible to do, as evidenced by just how monumentally stupid the arguments Republicans make in defending the electoral college are.
The core of their argument is that the electoral college forces candidates to campaign across the country, visiting all kinds of places and seeking support from all kinds of Americans, whereas if we just allowed the person with the most votes to win, candidates would stick to urban centers and ignore everyone else. That's the argument President Trump made, mustering all his analytical firepower:
But that’s demonstrably, even laughably, false. What the electoral college actually does, as we all know, is force candidates to campaign only in the tiny number of “battleground” states where the vote is close.
In 2016, the organization FairVote compiled a list of all the public campaign events Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and their running mates did in the general election and found that two-thirds of the visits took place in just six states (Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Michigan), and 94 percent of the visits went to just 12 states. Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia got zero campaign visits. That’s what the electoral college does.
States big and small, urban and rural all get ignored, from California to Texas to Alabama to Massachusetts. And quite in contrast to what Republicans say, using a popular vote would give candidates an incentive to go everywhere — and importantly, this includes states that have no chance of winning overall. A Republican might not win New York, but he would have a reason to campaign upstate where there are plenty of Republicans. A Democrat might not win Mississippi, but she would have a reason to campaign there, because the state has plenty of Democrats in it. (Clinton won 40 percent of the vote there.)
That we even have to argue about whether a system in which candidates have reason to campaign only in a small number of states and the person who gets the most votes might not wind up becoming president is enough to make you crazy. We should also note that every other democracy in the world has a system in which — and see if you can follow me here, because it gets pretty complicated — they have an election, and the person who gets the most votes wins.
The reason Democrats have to talk about the electoral college is that it’s part of a system, some parts of which are old and some parts of which are new, that undermines democracy at every turn, whether it’s by restricting voting rights, allowing those in power to draw district lines for partisan gain, granting outsize power to small states or allowing the super-rich to shape electoral outcomes to their liking. Every one of those anti-democratic features of the system works to the advantage of Republicans, which is why they defend them so fiercely. Indeed, most of the power Republicans have is made possible only because of the anti-democratic features of the system.
So if Democrats are going to advocate comprehensive democracy reform, getting rid of the electoral college has to be part of the case they make to the public, whether it’s something they can accomplish soon or not (though the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is creeping toward making it a reality without a constitutional amendment).
It’s a simple message: Democrats want everyone to be able to vote and want every vote to matter. Republicans don’t want either. You can try to adorn the argument, but that’s what it comes down to.