The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Abolish the electoral college

A supporter of President-elect Joe Biden holds up his cellphone to display the electoral college map, outside the Philadelphia Convention Center on Nov. 7. (John Minchillo/AP)

OUR COLUMNIST Marc A. Thiessen noted last week that President Trump had come very close to winning reelection. “A flip of just some 73,700 votes in those three states [Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia] and Trump would be making plans for a second term — and we would all be taking about a ‘red wave,’ ” he wrote.

Mr. Thiessen’s point was that Mr. Trump’s near miss makes him a viable candidate in 2024. We draw a different lesson: It is alarming that a candidate came so close to winning while polling more than 5 million fewer votes than his opponent nationwide. The electoral college, whatever virtues it may have had for the Founding Fathers, is no longer tenable for American democracy.

We write this with full awareness of the challenges of adopting a new system, with respect for many of the people who continue to argue against a switch, and with awareness that any change may have unintended consequences. Right now, our presidential elections are conducted by 51 separate authorities, each with its own rules on registration, mail-in balloting and more. Each state counts its own ballots, and each decides when recounts are needed. All of that would have to change if the president were chosen based on the national vote count. Additionally, electoral college math induces candidates to pay attention to voters in some small states who might otherwise be ignored.

In a traditional voting system, voters select just one candidate. With ranked-choice voting, they rank candidates in order of preference. Here's how it works. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

But why should Iowa’s biofuel lobby get more of a hearing than, say, California’s artichoke lobby? Small states already have disproportionate clout in our government because of the Senate, in which Wyoming’s fewer than 600,000 residents have as much representation as California’s 39.5 million. We see no particular reason voters in purple states such as Wisconsin should be valued more than voters in red states such as Mississippi or blue states such as Washington.

There are worries that direct election might encourage regionalism or third parties at the extremes of political discourse. Any switch to a national system would rightly trigger debates over runoffs or ranked-choice voting to ensure majority rule. And we recognize that the constitutional amendment that would be required isn’t about to happen.

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But it’s time to get serious about a change. Mr. Trump became president in 2016 despite earning 3 million fewer votes than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Now, he has come close to winning reelection despite losing the popular vote by a far greater margin (though, by the time all the votes aren’t counted, it won’t be quite as close as when Mr. Thiessen wrote; Mr. Trump is now trailing in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania by more than 90,000).

We believe that Mr. Trump’s election was a sad event for the nation; his reelection would have been a calamity; we hope Mr. Thiessen is wrong about 2024. But we would be making this argument no matter which party seemed likely to benefit. If Democratic nominee John F. Kerry hadn’t lost Ohio by just 120,000 votes in 2004, he would have won an electoral college victory despite trailing President George W. Bush by 3 million votes in the national count. That would have been a problem, too.

Americans are not going to be satisfied with leaders who have been rejected by a majority of voters, and they’re right not to be. It’s time to let the majority rule.

Read more:

Sen. Jeff Merkley’s letter in response to this piece: This alternative to the electoral college doesn’t require a constitutional amendment

Read letters in response to this piece: The right thing to do about voting and the electoral college

Greg Sargent: No, the ‘Hail Mary’ plan for Trump isn’t going to work

Marc A. Thiessen: Trump can run and win in 2024. But first he needs to save the Senate majority.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: No matter who wins, it’s time to get rid of the electoral college

Charles Lane: The electoral college has its issues. So do the alternatives.