The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Abolish the filibuster and the electoral college

The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)

Seth Moulton, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts’s 6th District in the House of Representatives.

Amid the tragedies of the Iraq War, one bright spot always stuck with me: seeing Iraqis vote. They dipped their fingers in ink to prove they voted, and rather than hiding those fingers for fear of reprisal, they walked through the streets holding them high. What they were saying was, for the first time in their lives, their opinions mattered — their votes counted.

That’s the most fundamental requirement of a democracy: Everyone should be able to vote, and every vote should matter. But the uncomfortable truth is, those rights have never truly been guaranteed here in the United States. It’s time to fix what’s broken.

To change the country, we need to fundamentally change how government works: We need to abolish the filibuster and the electoral college.

First, the filibuster. The Senate should require a simple majority to pass legislation, not the arbitrary 60 votes required by the filibuster. A recent New York Magazine article sums up why: “At present, the 26 smallest states are home to roughly 17 percent of the U.S. population. Which is to say: The filibuster allows lawmakers elected by less than 17 percent of voters to exercise veto power over any and all laws. This is a monstrously anti-democratic institution with no parallel in any other advanced democracy.”

It’s hard to argue with that. And contrary to popular belief, the filibuster was not created intentionally by the Founding Fathers to make the Senate more bipartisan or deliberative. In fact, the Senate originally had a rule that the House still has, which allows a simple majority to end debate on a measure; it was only in 1806, at Vice President Aaron Burr’s suggestion, that that rule was dropped and not until decades later that filibusters began to be used.

The filibuster is also holding us back, ensuring that our laws don’t change with the will of voters. A majority of Americans want economic change, gun reform, a plan to address climate change and health care for all. But we have a lopsided system that makes it nearly impossible for that majority to obtain 60 seats in the Senate. So if we don’t abolish the filibuster, the changes that most Americans want — and the promises 2020 candidates are making — will likely never come to pass.

That’s unacceptable; issues such as climate change won’t wait, and neither can we. Senate Republicans through a mere majority vote already did away with the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations. We should do the same with all Senate votes to give Americans the legislative voice they deserve.

Next, the electoral college. We all know the obvious reason this needs to be replaced with a popular-vote system: In 2016, approximately 3 million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump, and yet, Trump is the president. This is not wrong because Trump is a bad president; it’s wrong because it’s unfair to have some Americans’ votes count more than others — just like it was wrong in when a similar thing happened in 2000, 1888 and 1876.

People often defend the electoral college by arguing that without it, presidential candidates would pay attention to only a few states. But that’s already the case because of the electoral college: Two-thirds of general-election presidential campaign events in 2016 were held in just six states, and 94 percent were held in just 12 states. In a winner-take-all-electoral-votes system, candidates campaign only in the states that are a toss-up.

But if we abolish the electoral college — either through a constitutional amendment or a national popular-vote compact — presidential candidates could earn votes anywhere, making them far more likely to campaign everywhere. Then, no matter where you live or how your neighbors vote, your vote would matter. As it should.

Granted, the filibuster and electoral college are not the only problems with our electoral system. It took nearly a century for black Americans to have any representation in Congress, and they still face voter suppression and gerrymandering tactics today. Corporations, which have been deemed people by the Supreme Court, often have more of a voice in our politics than the actual humans do. And in some places, it’s still easier to buy a gun than cast a vote.

Democrats in the House are tackling these issues by passing H.R. 1, vowing to end gerrymandering and voter suppression, take dark money out of politics, and more. But H.R. 1, like so many other great and wildly popular ideas, will never pass the Senate as long as we have the filibuster. And even if it did, it would be vetoed by a president who lost by 3 million votes.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. America has never been a country that has gotten it all right. We’re a work in progress. And these reforms are the next step.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The prospect of easier and fairer voting terrifies Republicans

E.J. Dionne Jr.: How will we repair our democracy after Trump? H.R. 1 offers a clue.

Paul Waldman: Why Democrats need to be ready to kill the filibuster

Ellen Kurz: Registration is a voter-suppression tool. Let’s finally end it.

The Post’s View: Georgia’s voter suppression problem goes much deeper than Brian Kemp