WASHINGTON ― A group of House Democrats on Tuesday gathered to discuss reforms to the way the country elects its president ― namely the Electoral College ― after Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election to Donald Trump despite winning the popular vote by 2.7 million votes and counting.
At a forum on Capitol Hill hosted by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, several Democrats from populous states argued the Electoral College is an outdated form of electing a president ― one that was originally devised as a compromise to protect the power of slave-owning states.
Democratic lawmakers hailing from states like California, New York, Virginia and Texas argued the balance of power unfairly skewed toward smaller, less populous states, and said that battleground states carried disproportionate influence in presidential elections. In the entire 2016 election, for example, almost every appearance by both candidates occurred in just 12 states.
“Under our current system, the votes of millions of people in non-swing states are effectively lost when they vote for the candidate who loses their state because all of that state’s electoral votes will be given to the other candidate,” Conyers said in his opening statement.
In most states, whichever candidate wins a majority of the popular vote wins all of the state’s electoral votes. Only two states ― Nebraska and Maine ― do not follow the winner-takes-all rule.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who has introduced a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the Electoral College in favor of a direct election, suggested distributing electoral votes by congressional district. “They’re Americans, even if they live on the coast,” Cohen said of Americans who reside on the country’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
But Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) cautioned about the unintended consequences of electing a president via “gerrymandered districts.” So-called gerrymandered districts are intentionally drawn so as to give one political party an advantage, and they remain prevalent across the country.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) noted that the Golden State, where votes are still being counted and where Clinton won by a historic margin, sent a disproportionate amount of tax dollars to the federal government compared to smaller states, which are net recipients of federal tax dollars.
“I don’t think we can sustain our American democracy by having the majority ruled by the minority,” she said.
During the Nov. 8 election, Trump ran up margins in small cities and rural areas, turning out white working class voters in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio. He also outperformed in rural areas of battleground states like Florida and North Carolina, both of which he won.
Proposed solutions to Electoral College reform discussed at the forum included abolishing the system entirely, scrapping the winner-take-all rule in states, pursuing a constitutional amendment, and seeking to form some sort of interstate compact where states award electoral votes collectively to the candidate who wins the national popular vote.
One such plan, the National Popular Vote initiative, has been enacted into law in 11 states with 165 electoral votes. But it needs to be passed by states with 105 more electoral votes in order to take effect. A new nonprofit, called One Nation One Vote, announced Tuesday it would work to help move the plan across the finish line. It also called on President Barack Obama to endorse the NPV before he leaves office.
Akhil Reed Amar, a professor of constitutional law at Yale University who testified before the panel, said an interstate compact was needed in order to uphold the principle of “one person, one vote.” The NPV would ensure that “everyone is a swing voter, whether you are a urban voter in Houston, Texas or a rural voter in the rural valley of California,” he said at the forum.
Jamie Raskin, a professor of constitutional law who in November won his bid for Congress in Maryland, noted that past attempts to amend the constitution were most successful when they originated within the states. “This is the way major political changes have happened. The states do it first,” he said of the NPV initiative.
Even though no Republican members of Congress attended the forum, Democrats might find a receptive ear for reform in the White House come January. A week after his stunning victory, Donald Trump said he’d prefer electing the president via popular vote, and even claimed he could have won the election if he had campaigned in larger states like California and New York.
“I would rather see it where you went with simple votes,” he said in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes.” “You know, you get 100 million votes, somebody else gets 90 million votes, and you win. There’s a reason for doing this because it brings all the states into play―[the] Electoral College―and there’s something very good about that. This is a different system, but I respect it.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) as the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.