Should the Electoral College Be Abolished?
The Nation’s John Nichols says neither our mayors, governors, nor school boards are elected this way
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown. Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin over Donald Trump in the presidential election has surpassed 2 million votes, but Hillary Clinton won’t be inaugurated as president next month. This flagrant discrepancy in our democracy has reignited arguments about why the Electoral College should be dismantled, and our next guest is making that exact argument in his recent article in The Nation.
John Nichols is a journalist and an author. He’s also a Washington correspondent for The Nation, and he’s also the Associate Editor of The Capitol Times. His piece in The Nation is titled “We Need to Kill the Electoral College.” And, John, you’re joining us now. Thank you so much for your time.
JOHN NICHOLS: Very honored to be with you, as always.
KIM BROWN: Well, John, according to American history, this will be the sixth instance of a candidate winning the popular vote and not ascending to the White House as President, but why are you making the argument that we need to kill the Electoral College now?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I’ve always made the argument. I have believed as long as I’ve been a political reporter, which goes back a long time now, that the Electoral College is antithetical to the best instincts of the American experiment. Remember, the United States was founded as a country that extended the franchise — the right to vote — to very, very few people, and so there were tremendous limits on democracy at the start of this country. But the American journey, as understood, I think, by the best of our leaders — and frankly by those who’ve struggled to open up the American process — is a movement toward democracy. And so, as we’ve extended the franchise to people who had different religious beliefs, people of different economic circumstances, people of different races and, ultimately, to people of different genders, to allow people who are under the age of 21 to vote, each of these steps along the way has moved us closer to democracy.
And yet, at the end of the day, when we get to the test where we say, well, you know, most people can vote, even with the terrible barriers that have been put in place by voter ID laws, limits on pre-election voting, things of that nature, most people have at least some access to this.
Now we say, well, it doesn’t really matter. If… even if the overwhelming plurality of folks, even millions of more folks, vote for one candidate, that candidate does not become President of the United States. This is an absurdity. It’s an abomination. Understand: we don’t elect our school boards that way. We don’t elect our city councils that way. We don’t elect mayors that way. We don’t elect governors that way. We don’t elect our Members of the House of Representatives that way. We don’t elect our US Senators that way. But suddenly, when you get to the presidency, you have a different set of rules that allow someone who lost the popular vote to become President of the United States.
KIM BROWN: But, John, there doesn’t seem to be any political will for trying to eliminate the Electoral College, and it’s not totally clear whether or not voters — there’s somehow some clause in the Constitution, where 2/3 of the majority of the voters in the United States will be able to compel Congress or the governing powers to somehow dismantle the Electoral College — but those of us over a certain age, this will be the second time that we’ve experienced this in less than 20 years. Which is pretty remarkable, if you think about it, that now, in 2000, we had with then-Vice President Al Gore winning the popular vote, but George W. Bush became the President, and less than 20 years later we’re experiencing this same sort of phenomenon again. So, how come this didn’t get changed after the 2000 election? Why are we now going through this now in 2016?
JOHN NICHOLS: I think that’s a very good question, and I think that the answer lies in the fact that in 2000, while you had a Supreme Court intervention and, again, a clearly abominable circumstance where the person who won the popular vote didn’t become President, people thought that was anomalous, that was an odd circumstance.
What they didn’t recognize at the time, and what I hope people begin to recognize now, is that this is not an odd circumstance. This is going to be a constant — or at least frequent — reality as regards the Electoral College in the future.
The reason for that is that as the United States sees a rapid growth of coastal states, as well as cosmopolitan centers in the center of the country, smaller states that have always got three electoral votes and always will because under the way that it’s structured, they get a vote for their Member of the House of Representatives, as well as their two Senators, smaller states will have more and more influence over the process.
Now, I don’t have anything against small states. And I’ll note that, this time, five small states voted for Hillary Clinton for President. So, it’s not a bigotry, if you will, or a disdain for smaller states, but it is a problem with the disproportionality. What happens is that you end up in a circumstance where someone could win a number of small states and then win a handful of larger states by a very, very narrow margin, and become President. That reality becomes greater and greater as you see the population shifts in the country.
So, my sense is that what we saw in 2000, what we’re seeing in 2016, is very possibly something that we will see again and again in the future. So as a society, we have to ask ourselves: do we really want to have a circumstance where we have Presidents getting elected, perhaps with smaller and smaller portions of the popular vote, and then being given the full powers of the presidency, essentially being able to say they have a mandate to govern, when in fact the clear majority of people did not choose that person for President, and in some cases now — where we have this year — only about 46% of Americans voted for Donald Trump; 54%, roughly, of those who actually showed up and voted, didn’t vote for him. And yet he will be President of the United States.
That’s something we ought to wrestle with as a country. Now, we have many options for how to address this issue. But the fact is that America has historically addressed issues of this sort. We did not have an elected United States Senate at the founding of this country. We amended the Constitution to make the Senate elected. We did not extend the franchise to African-Americans, to women, to all sorts of folks. We amended the Constitution to remedy a problem that existed from the founding.
And so, we should, I think, begin to recognize the Electoral College as a problem that extends from the founding of this country, that ought now to be addressed.
KIM BROWN: Well, John, you raise a very interesting point there, because there are a number of people, including yourself, making the argument how, and why, the Electoral College should be done away with. But what is the actual process for that to happen? How long would this process possibly take if we can convince our elected officials to go along with it? Because I would imagine that the process has to start somewhere in Congress. Is that accurate?
JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, it’s a fair assessment of one way to do it. Senator Barbara Boxer has proposed an amendment to abolish the Electoral College. There have actually been many, many attempts over the years, some of which have come very close to succeeding, both under President Richard Nixon and under President Jimmy Carter, you came really very, very close. They had major congressional action. It seemed likely to happen. And then was blocked in each case by a minority grouping of Senators or Members of the House that did not let it go forward.
And so, there is popular will out there. One avenue is, of course, the Constitutional Amendment and that is one that, as you well point out, can be difficult; although we have amended the Constitution dozens of times and often on core democracy issues.
Another avenue is something called the National Popular Vote Compact. That’s an agreement between states that they will assign their electoral votes, as the states have the freedom to do, to the winner of the popular vote. If enough states, adding up to 270 electoral votes that needed to become President were to accept the Compact, you would effectively create a system by which the states could overrule the Electoral College by assigning their votes. We now have 10 states and the District of Columbia that have agreed to the National Popular Vote Compact. They add up to about 160 electoral votes.
So, if another handful of states were to go along with these larger states, and in the case of some smaller states, you could get to that 270 and you would have a model for addressing this.
So, there’s not just one way out of this situation. There are a number of ways. But the core thing that I say is that rather than worrying about the complexity of it, rather than worrying about the difficulty of it, what we ought to focus on is the fundamental flaw — and that is that someone who doesn’t win the popular vote can become President of the United States. Doesn’t matter if that’s a Democrat or a Republican, doesn’t matter if it’s a liberal or a conservative, doesn’t matter who it is, what matters is, is that reality exists. And the more we talk about it, the more we focus on it, I think we have an ability to build out that national consensus, that it’s a good idea to make the change. Historically, Republicans and Democrats have supported this change, conservatives and liberals. And so, it’s not unreasonable to make the case. I know at this point, supporters of Hillary Clinton will be particularly enthusiastic in this regard. I think also that looking back at the circumstance of 2000 and 2016, Democrats may be very inclined to be in the forefront of this.
But what I would argue to my Republican friends and folks who are independents, and folks who support the Green Party, the Libertarians, whatever your political notion, the core concept of the American experiment ought to be that if you get the most votes, at least a plurality and ideally a majority, you ought to win the office you were seeking. We shouldn’t have a circumstance where the person who is favored by a clear plurality of the voters, who gets the most votes, does not take office.
KIM BROWN: John, in your piece for The Nation, you write that the Electoral College was never meant to serve or has not served as a quality assurance mechanism; it has not necessarily prevented the worst person from making it into office. But I’m not sure if you’ve checked out this piece in The New York Times from an Electoral College voter. His name is Christopher Suprun and he says that he is a Republican, he’s from Texas, and that he will not cast his electoral vote for Donald Trump, and he’s encouraging other Republican electoral voters to do the same, to put their support behind a so-called “principled Republican” — his words, not mine — like a Governor John Kasich of Ohio. What are your thoughts about electors sort of going rogue and not adhering to the electoral votes of their state per se and then casting their vote in a different direction when it’s actually time to do so on December 19th?
JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. This is a long-term reality. These folks are referred to as “faithless” electors. We’ve had them throughout history, and usually small numbers of folks who just simply do not follow the instructions from their state or the instructions from the electorate to the extent that it’s influential in this regard.
This is one of the crises of the Electoral College, that you don’t have a requirement in every instance that people follow, even the dictates of the voters in their own state. And I think it’s a big issue. I understand, today, that there are many folks who don’t like Donald Trump, who desperately want some alternative individual to be put ahead by the Electoral College. I can tell you that that is, on the surface, perhaps an appealing notion for folks who don’t like Donald Trump, but it would be one… you’d have a huge crisis because, of course, Trump backers would then be screaming that they had been robbed of something that they felt they had achieved, and it doesn’t… still, if you’re talking about putting a John Kasich in, someone like that, it doesn’t achieve the end of putting the person who won the popular vote, who is the candidate supported by the plurality of people in the country. And on this point, I’d point out Clinton’s popular vote lead is about 2.7 million. She is rapidly approaching the same number of votes that Barack Obama won in 2012. It’s still very, very problematic.
If you create an institution that can literally say, “Well, we’re not going to vote for the person who won the state that we represent. We’re not going to vote for the popular vote-winner. We’re just going to pull somebody else off the bench and put that person in,” I would suggest to you that that is a very, very powerful illustration of the many, many challenges and flaws with the Electoral College.
KIM BROWN: We’ve been speaking with John Nichols. He is a journalist and an author. He’s the Associate Editor of The Capitol Times. He’s also the Washington correspondent for The Nation. His latest piece, titled “We Need to Kill the Electoral College” is out now. I suggest you check it out. John, we appreciate your time today. Thank you so much.
JOHN NICHOLS: It’s a tremendous pleasure, and great questions. Good conversation. Thank you.
KIM BROWN: Thank you, and thanks to everyone for watching The Real News Network.