The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elizabeth Warren wants to kill the electoral college

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, at an event in Memphis on Sunday. (Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal/AP)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Monday endorsed ending the electoral college, arguing for a system where “every vote matters.”

Many Democrats, including Warren, have disparaged the electoral college following the presidential election results in 2000 and 2016, when Al Gore and Hillary Clinton both won the national popular vote, yet lost the electoral college vote and, as a result, the presidency.

The announcement from Warren, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, came during an hour-long town hall at Mississippi’s Jackson State University and amid a wave of (blue-leaning) state action to do the same.

On Sunday, Colorado joined 11 other states and the District of Columbia in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Members pledge to give their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote.

The bill will only take effect, however, if the law is passed by states representing at least 270 electoral college votes, which is the number needed to win the presidency. With the addition of Colorado, the tally now sits at 181.

With criticism flying about the electoral college, here's what you need to know about our system for electing the president. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Jurisdictions that have enacted the legislation include Rhode Island, Vermont, Hawaii, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, California and the District of Columbia. New Mexico, whose Senate approved the legislation last week, and Delaware, whose House passed a comparable bill Monday, could be the next states to join.

Other Democratic candidates support getting rid of the electoral college in favor of a popular vote, including Pete Buttigieg, who went on the record against it in late January, and Beto O’Rourke, who said he thinks “there’s a lot of wisdom” in getting rid of the electoral college when asked about it on Tuesday.

But Republican-controlled legislatures haven’t embraced the effort.

The popular vote could decide the 2020 presidential election, if these states get their way

Reed Hundt, chairman and co-founder of Making Every Vote Count, told The Washington Post last month that changing the electoral college delegate procedures in enough states could be difficult. The remaining states where the initiative may pass are smaller and left-leaning, he said.

Under the Constitution, states have the power to determine how they award their electoral votes in national elections. Most states have winner-take-all laws, which award all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes within the state. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, split their electoral votes.

Because many states are dominated by either Republicans or Democrats, the winner of a presidential election is largely a foregone conclusion in those states. Also because electoral votes are reflective of the representation within the U.S. House and Senate, some states have very large electoral college contingencies, while others are much smaller. As a result, presidential hopefuls focus attention primarily on a handful of battleground states.

In the 2012, 2016 and 2020 elections, nearly 40 states, with about 80 percent of the country’s population, were or will be ignored by both candidates, Hundt said.

Five of the nation’s 45 presidents have taken office without winning the national popular vote, including President Trump, who has said “campaigning to win the electoral college is much more difficult & sophisticated than the popular vote. Hillary focused on the wrong states!”

Republican lawmakers have countered states’ bills, suggesting Democrats want to change election rules because they cannot win on merits.

Warren and other supporters of the change argue that Trump’s 2016 victory — via a system that ignores the national popular vote winner — defies “the sign of a healthy democracy."

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