The 2020 election shouldn’t be a nail-biter. As of Wednesday morning, Democrat Joe Biden had earned 69 million votes, or 50.1% of those cast. President Donald Trump had earned 66.3 million votes, or just 48.2%.
As mail-in and absentee ballots, which tend to lean Democrat, continue to come in, Biden’s margin could grow to as much as 6 million — roughly double the margin Hillary Clinton won in 2016. That’s more votes than any presidential candidate in history has received and, by any other standard, a decisive showing of who most Americans want to be president.
And yet, as usual, the election result will come down to just a few precincts in a few states. The Supreme Court, with six Republican-appointed justices, may ultimately end up deciding who wins.
The Electoral College is becoming increasingly indefensible, a prominent symbol of America’s obsolete, anti-democratic structures at every level of government. The system was born of racism and leaves the country vulnerable to rogue electors who could shift the results with little accountability. Since 2000, there have been five presidential contests. In two of them, the Electoral College has awarded the presidency to the loser of the popular vote. Since 1992, Republicans have won the popular vote for president just once.
This is, to put it lightly, a problem. All of America’s majority-thwarting procedures favor white, rural and Republican voters. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats won nearly 60% of the popular vote — and still lost two Senate seats. Thanks to the Electoral College, every vote in Wyoming is four times more powerful than a vote in California.
Despite four out of five Americans living in heavily Democratic urban areas, for the last two decades, every presidential contest has come down to a tiny fraction of voters in a handful of rural and suburban counties in the same small number of midwestern states.
“The arguments in favor of the Electoral College almost exclusively consist of explicit or implicit arguments against democracy itself.”
This year, according to the widest definition of the term, roughly 100 million Americans live in swing states. That means candidates’ attention was almost exclusively focused on winning the votes of less than one-third of the country. The Electoral College is why 96% of campaign events took place in just 12 states. It is why fracking in Pennsylvania came up at two presidential debates, and why months of wildfires along the entire West Coast were barely mentioned.
Meanwhile, the arguments in favor of the Electoral College almost exclusively consist of explicit or implicit arguments against democracy itself. In a livestream last night, Glenn Beck said that if Democrats win, America would “fundamentally transform into a democracy.” Trump didn’t like the Electoral College, until he did. In 2019, Marco Rubio said that the Electoral College “makes sure interests of less populated areas aren’t ignored at the expense of densely populated areas” — i.e. that land area should amplify the votes of people living on it.
Conservative commentators have also typically defended the Electoral College with lofty-sounding appeals to tradition and American values. In an infamous 1992 column, George Will argued that America’s founders didn’t want majority rule but rather “wanted rule by majorities of a particular character: moderation.” Whatever that means.
On the bright side, calls to abolish the Electoral College have started to show up in campaign speeches and policy promises. Numerous presidential candidates, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), included the abolition of the Electoral College in their 2020 platforms. (Biden, ironically, didn’t.) The National Popular Vote compact, under which states agree to give their Electoral College votes to whichever candidate wins the most votes overall, has 15 signatories totaling 196 electoral college votes. Last night, thanks to a ballot initiative, Colorado appears to have joined them.
It’s going to be an uphill battle. According to a September Gallup poll, 61% of Americans favor getting rid of the Electoral College. Supporters included 89% of Democrats, 68% of independents — and just 23% of Republicans.