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Embedded in the Constitution, the Electoral College may be hard to eliminate. Our guest John R. Koza of National Popular Vote thinks it can be remade to serve the popular will

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us once again.

Elizabeth Warren just announced she wants to do away with the Electoral College. That seems to be a battleground that will not be easy to conquer, as shrouded as it is in our history and in legend. What purpose does it serve? In whose interest did it become a political institution? The electoral college seems to be at once part of our Constitution and also left up to the states. Does it really give smaller states more power, or is that mythology? Is it shrouded in slaveocracy roots, as some would argue? Some would say it’s not. How do you end or change the use of an enshrined institution? What would that take?

We’re joined by John R. Koza, who is Chairman of the National Popular Vote and a lead author of the book Every Equal Vote: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote. And, John, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.

JOHN R. KOZA: Thank you, Marc, for having me.

MARC STEINER: So let’s begin with Elizabeth Warren’s statement and take it from there. This is what she had to say about ending the Electoral College.

ELIZABETH WARREN: My view is that every vote matters. And the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting, and that means get rid of the Electoral College.

MARC STEINER: So my reading of the work you’ve been doing, John, is that you take a more nuanced position of that. Not get rid of it, but change it. And I want to ask some questions about that. Am I right about that?

JOHN R. KOZA: Yes, you are, Marc. Our goal is to have the president of the United States elected by the most popular votes of the people in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. But our method of achieving it is inside the Constitution, because the Constitution gives the state legislatures the exclusive power to determine how the members of the Electoral College are selected. And our proposal would change the method of selection so that the Electoral College would always reflect the choice of the people in all fifty states for president.

MARC STEINER: What does that mean? I mean, when you look at the Constitution and the Twelfth Amendment, it’s very clear they talk about electors that are given really wide range inside the Constitution about what they can do and what they can’t do. And some people said that was kind of the anti-popular democracy sense of the founders of the country, for lots of complex reasons if we have time we’ll get into. So what does that mean, to maintain it and keep it in terms of what the Constitution says? How would you change things?

JOHN R. KOZA: Well, the president of the United States is elected by 538 unknown people who meet in December after the people vote in November. But the method by which they’re chosen has varied considerably over the years and is entirely under the control of state legislatures. So under the current system, most states have what they call a state winner-take-all law, which awards all of the state’s electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most votes inside the state. And the consequences of this winner-take-all approach is, first of all, that five out of our forty-five presidents have come into office without having won the most votes nationwide. But more importantly, three quarters or more of the states are ignored in presidential campaigns because under the winner-take-all rule, unless you’re in a closely divided state, say plus or minus three percent, candidates pay no attention because they know they’re going to win the state or they know they’re going to lose the state.

MARC STEINER: So is the stance that you all are taking about how to transform and reform the Electoral College–so my sense of what you’re saying is if somebody wins forty percent of the vote in a given state, that they would get forty percent of the electoral vote. Is that what you’re saying?

JOHN R. KOZA: No, not at all. Right now, of course, if you get forty percent of the popular vote inside a state, you get absolutely nothing. What we would do is–for example, in Colorado, voters now have a direct voice in only selecting nine of the 538 presidential electors. Under our system, every voter in every state would vote for a pool of 270 electors, which is enough to elect a president. They would directly vote for the electors, the 270 electors, and the presidential candidate who gets the most popular votes in all fifty states would then get enough electors to win when this election is held in December in the Electoral College.

MARC STEINER: So just to be clear, what you’re saying is, and the way you’re approaching this, is that if I’m voting here in the state of Maryland where I live and you’re voting in California where you live, that we both get to choose all the electors in the country?

JOHN R. KOZA: Well, Maryland and California have already enacted the National Popular Vote legislation. When it takes effect, every voter in every state will be voting simultaneously, when they vote for their choice for president, on a group of 270 electors, which is enough to elect the president. And then, the presidential candidate who got the most popular votes in all fifty states would be guaranteed the White House.

MARC STEINER: So the question is, why do you think that we should continue with the Electoral College? I mean, right now it seems to be a real battleground between liberals and progressives on the one end, many conservative thinkers and activists on the other end who want to keep the Electoral College, some arguing that the Republicans want to keep it because it ensures their electoral victories, and Democrats want to get rid of it because the way it’s structured right now they cannot win, even if they won the popular vote. So the question is, why do we even need, from your perspective, the Electoral College?

JOHN R. KOZA: Well, the Electoral College is there, it’s in the Constitution. What’s also in the Constitution is a built-in method by which state legislatures can change the method of picking these presidential electors and therefore picking the president. So what we have is a politically achievable and constitutionally conservative approach, which is to let the state legislatures, who enacted these state winner-take-all laws in the first place, change those laws and change to a system where the candidate who gets the most popular votes in all fifty states becomes president.

MARC STEINER: So when you look at the original Constitution–I’m just curious about your take on this, and also seeing where you think these political debates might take us and where the fights may take us over the next year. Clearly, this will not be resolved before the 2020 election, is my guess. Would you guess that as well? Whatever route we take, it will not be resolved by 2020?

JOHN R. KOZA: I think that’s a good prediction. We do expect to have this done by 2024.

MARC STEINER: So when you read the beginning of the Twelfth Amendment, and it says, “The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President…” And it goes on, obviously. I won’t read the whole thing. But one of the things that was said clearly in the beginning was there was a real fear in this country at its founding of the popular vote, and in some ways, the electors were there to ensure that another institution would step in between that. Then there’s the argument of whether it helps small states versus large states, and that battle, and other people’s arguments that really this was an institution created to ensure the power of slavocracy and slave states. So when you mix all that up together with that, how do we take this on for the future?

JOHN R. KOZA: Well, when the Constitution was written, the founding fathers couldn’t agree on how to elect the president. That’s why we have a system that set up an Electoral College which currently has 538 members. But they didn’t specify how the 538 members would be selected, they turned that matter over to the states. And some of the states did not want the people to vote, and in fact, the state legislatures picked the presidential electors and the voters had no direct voice in selecting the president. Other states had a statewide election for president very similar to the way we do today. There were three such states out of thirteen that did it that way. And then other states used a district system. One state even had the governor and his cabinet picking the presidential electors. So the founders left the Constitutional Convention without having decided how the president is elected, and they left the matter to the state legislatures.

MARC STEINER: So two questions here to kind of round out. I want to come back to your perspective on why you think that the Electoral College should be maintained. Clearly, people on the Warren side of the world and others want to see it just done away with. That would take a constitutional battle, we’d have to have a national referendum that would not happen easily, approved by two thirds of the states. So talk a bit about why you think it needs to remain in place.

JOHN R. KOZA: Well, it doesn’t need to remain in place, but the politically achievable and constitutionally conservative approach to solving the problem, which is to get the president elected by a popular vote of the people in all fifty states, is simply to use the power that’s in the Constitution now that allows the state legislatures to change the system. And that’s what our bill does. And our bill has now been signed into law in thirteen states with 189 electoral votes. We need states with 81 more electoral votes to bring this law into effect.

MARC STEINER: And so, where does your political push go next for this? What are the states you think are key in changing this and getting to 270?

JOHN R. KOZA: Well, we’re working in all states. There’s twenty some legislatures that are considering our bill. But most immediately, the bill is moved from committee to the floor of the Nevada house. There’s a very active bill being considered in Oregon and Michigan and Maine and later this year in New Hampshire, and then there’s a dozen and a half other bills at various stages in other states.

MARC STEINER: So as you said, the two states that you and I reside in, California and Maryland, have already passed this, and it does not take a change in the Constitution the way you’re describing it. Is this something where you think this has broad appeal? Conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive, do you think it has that broadened appeal?

JOHN R. KOZA: Well, it does. It holds very well. The public wants to see the president elected. Remember, four out of five voters are in states where they get no presidential campaign. The campaign revolves around states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, a couple of others. The next presidential campaign in 2020 will probably be focused on just five states, which would be Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

MARC STEINER: So this is really kind of interesting, the way that you’re approaching this. I’m just curious what you think that these states will actually do and why they would do it, and how that would change the nature of the election. That’s the most important point.

JOHN R. KOZA: Well, the way it would change the nature of the election is right now, 240 some electoral votes are in the bag for each party, so they only campaign in the very closely divided states, the Floridas, the Pennsylvanias, et cetera. And that means the issues relevant to Florida and Pennsylvania and this handful of battleground states get the attention of the presidential candidates. Under a national popular vote, every person’s vote in every state would count equally, so that a candidate could not possibly afford to ignore, say, Indiana, which does not get any attention now in presidential elections.

MARC STEINER: Let me just stop you real quick. Let’s describe that really succinctly before we end. So what literally would that mean, why would it force candidates to campaign in Indiana as well as campaigning in Florida?

JOHN R. KOZA: Because the vote in Indiana would count just as much towards the presidential candidate who wants to become president as a vote in Florida. Right now, there’s no reason for a presidential candidate to campaign in Indiana. They campaign only in the states that are very closely divided, say between forty-seven and fifty-three percent in favor of one candidate or the other. If you’re in a state that’s sixty-forty for one party or the other, it’s of no interest at all to the presidential candidate, because he or she knows he’s going to win or lose that state.

MARC STEINER: And to be clear, again, for our viewers watching this right now, so this has nothing really to do with splitting up electoral votes within a state, though, correct?

JOHN R. KOZA: That’s correct. We’re not splitting up any electoral votes. We’re trying to guarantee the White House to the candidate who gets the most popular votes in all fifty states.

MARC STEINER: This is really fascinating, and I hope we really continue this and kind of look at this even with some greater depth with you and others as we kind of look towards this election and see what all this means to us, as people who are really wrestling with how to strengthen our democracy here in the midst of what we’re facing. And John R. Koza, a, thanks for the work, and b, thanks for taking your time with us here. I appreciate everything you’re doing.

JOHN R. KOZA: Well, thank you very much, Marc.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner for The Real News Network. Thank you all for being with us. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.