Change the Electoral College but not right now
Posted November 21, 2016
In the wake of the presidential election, a movement is afoot to eliminate the Electoral College. Proponents of a popular vote are seeking support for a constitutional amendment that would finally abandon an institution that has been jury-rigged to survive in a modern age. It is true that the Electoral College needs to be revamped, but not now.
It is common for supporters of the losing candidate to be disgruntled. But this was a different election than most. In what must be a source of great confusion to the rest of the world (and perhaps many Americans), the candidate who won more of the votes of citizens than her opponent conceded the election to the candidate who didn’t. In other Western democracies, it is expected that the candidate who wins more votes is declared the victor. Not in the United States.
Of course, 2016 was not the first time this has happened. It has occurred twice in the past 20 years. Given the narrow margin between presidential candidates in recent years (no presidential candidate has won with more than a 4 percent margin since 1996), it is possible this phenomenon will recur in upcoming future presidential elections.
Naturally, the Electoral College becomes a target. Some Democrats are even urging Republican electors to abandon support for Donald Trump when they gather in their respective state capitols to vote on Dec. 19. Perhaps a few will do that, but not enough to deny him the margin of victory.
This year, 37 electors would have to choose someone else besides Trump. Would they vote for Clinton? Given that electors are strong partisans selected by the party, that prospect is highly unlikely. Would they vote for someone else? That is possible. But then the election would move to the House of Representatives. Would Republican representatives (who would be the majority) then vote for Hillary Clinton? Not likely. Would they vote for someone else? It would have to be someone who either received a small percentage of popular votes (Evan McMullin or Gary Johnson) or received no popular votes at all (let’s say, Colin Powell, Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan). Would they really reject someone who was supported by 60 million voters in favor of someone who received relatively few or even no votes at all? That would be too audacious to imagine, particularly since Republicans seem to be coalescing around the new president-elect.
Why not simply eliminate the Electoral College? That would necessitate a constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures. That is a high hurdle.
But an amendment is unnecessary to achieve electoral change. One way to reduce the likelihood of a discrepancy in the two sets of votes is to eliminate the winner-take-all nature of state distribution of electors. Maine and Nebraska already do this. They apportion votes by congressional district. In fact, Trump won one congressional district and therefore one elector in Maine. That more closely matched the statewide vote, where the GOP candidate won over 40 percent of the vote. Another idea would be to apportion electoral votes according to the percentage of votes a candidate won. That would mean that, in Utah, for example, the vote would have been split — probably three for Trump, two for Clinton and one for McMullin. These systems would make the electoral vote correspond more closely to the popular vote and reduce the likelihood of a candidate winning only one. And these changes could be made by state legislatures without a constitutional amendment.
But no change should occur now. The call for change now just seems like sour grapes. All parties ran under the current system and should respect it. However, that does not mean that next year or the year after that there could not be a state-by-state effort to pressure state legislatures to move away from the winner-take-all approach in favor of a congressional district or proportional representation model. That is a change in the Electoral College that could take place before 2020 and increase the likelihood the popular choice is the actual winner.