In a testament to humanity’s willingness to take on the most futile tasks imaginable without regard to sanity, it was announced Tuesday that outgoing Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has put forward legislation that would scrap the Electoral College in favor of electing the president of the United States by popular vote. I have this funny feeling that Boxer is so motivated by the fact that the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote, but lost the election.
Needless to say, fans of the Electoral College (and they’re mostly fair-weather fans) should not worry unduly. The Los Angeles Times’ Sarah D. Wire reports the obvious fact that Boxer’s measure “is unlikely to gain traction with Republicans holding control of both chambers of Congress in a lame duck session.” (Also: 38 of the 50 states would have to ratify this.)
One thing that the Electoral College has going for it, in terms of its own self-perpetuation, is that the occasion to discuss it only arises every four years. If you start talking about scrapping the system before the election, you’ll get shut down because no one likes “changing horses in midstream,” as they say. And if you start talking about it after the election, then you’re probably just plucking sour grapes from the vine.
In fact, to avoid any accusations that I’m raising all of this because of some degree of post-election bitterness, let me jump ahead a little bit and lay down an important marker: The notion that Clinton would have won the election in a system without an Electoral College, fully dependent on the popular vote, is a pretty dangerous assumption. My suspicion, in fact, is that the election probably went the same way in the parallel universe without an Electoral College. (Though I think that in the parallel universe where Clinton just used her State Department email, she’s probably doing okay.)
That being said, a fully popular-vote election would have changed the nature of both campaigns and the way they were covered, and it’s in this realm where you’ll find most of the virtues of getting rid of the Electoral College system.
Right now, at the outset of every presidential election, the Electoral College means the states immediately are sorted into two pots ― battlegrounds and monoliths. And if your state ends up in the second pot, you get to spend 16 months being entirely written off, while the battlegrounds effectively get shoved into a bubble.
That’s too bad, because states like Massachusetts and Mississippi are fascinating places. Their residents deserve the opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with the presidential campaigns, too. And you never know what insights we’re losing by shunting entire states off into the phantom zone. Immigration was a huge issue this year. In Alabama, residents have some lived-in experiences that might have added a healthy dose of introspection to the campaign. But that opportunity was lost because no one cares what Alabama thinks during a presidential election.
So the system hurts us by denying many Americans the opportunity to share key insights about their lives with the rest of the country. Of course, defenders of the Electoral College have similar concerns. In fact, there’s a larger worry that in a popular-vote system, campaigns might entirely forsake rural America because the votes in those regions are few and far between compared with big cities and their suburbs.
Well, we shouldn’t have a system that does that. But as Robert Speel notes over at Time magazine, the Electoral College didn’t prevent a mass avoidance of rural America anyway:
Data from the 2016 campaign indicate that 53 percent of campaign events for Trump, Hillary Clinton, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine in the two months before the November election were in only four states: Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio. During that time, 87 percent of campaign visits by the four candidates were in 12 battleground states, and none of the four candidates ever went to 27 states, which includes almost all of rural America.
Even in the swing states where they do campaign, the candidates focus on urban areas where most voters live. In Pennsylvania, for example, 72 percent of Pennsylvania campaign visits by Clinton and Trump in the final two months of their campaigns were to the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas.
In Michigan, all eight campaign visits by Clinton and Trump in the final two months of their campaigns were to the Detroit and Grand Rapids areas, with neither candidate visiting the rural parts of the state.
Four years ago, Republicans stuck in the sour grapes cycle floated the idea of carving themselves out of the Electoral College’s various entrapments. In Pennsylvania, for example, Republicans floated the idea of shifting from their winner-take-all electoral jackpot to a system that would have broken up the electoral rewards by congressional district. Such a move would have taken things in the wrong direction, in terms of fairness, but you can understand where they were coming from, as voters in the Keystone State’s major cities tended to ride herd over everyone else. And only a partisan or a cynic could feel good about their fellow citizens thinking they didn’t really have a voice.
Obviously, for those who had those concerns in 2012, the Electoral College system brought some measure of vindication in 2016, as Pennsylvania shifted back to the GOP all on its own. Nevertheless, it can’t be healthy for residents of Pennsylvania to feel, perpetually, like they are pitted against each other every four years. A popular-vote system might help alleviate the bitterness.
And third-party interaction with the Electoral College system truly is a mess. For starters, the way the system works paves the way for the perception that third-party candidates are spoilers, not players, with elections ending with anger being hurled their way for distorting the result. I don’t personally hold to this notion ― if you’re a major party candidate with comparatively unlimited resources at your disposal, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself if Jill Stein’s votes would have won you Michigan. But the bitterness toward third-party candidates has a way of lingering, creating one of those “nobody learns and nobody hugs” situations.
And who can say whether third-party candidates are getting an honest reflection of their base with the Electoral College, which adds a layer of strategic thinking that many voters likely have to grapple with as they arrived at their polling places? Seems to me that many people are more likely to vote third party if they’re confident that the majority in their state is going to shield them from the worst outcome, and less likely to do so if they feel their fellow voters won’t deliver the next-best option.
Suffice it to say, Americans have the right to challenge the hegemony of the two-party system. It’s not clear that the Electoral College gives them a fair shot. It certainly doesn’t seem to provide incentives for alternate parties to evolve.
It seems to me that if you want to come at the Electoral College, daggers drawn, you should do so out of respect for all the voices that don’t get heard during elections, either because the candidates and the media steer clear of them entirely, or because they get submerged in the system. Changing the system out of the belief that your candidates would have always thrived if the popular vote prevailed is a good way to set yourself up for disappointment. For all anyone knows, if Clinton had barnstormed the West Coast and the non-New Hampshire parts of the Northeast, her intense focus on professional-class concerns may have left voters in those states feeling just as cold to her as they were in Wisconsin and Michigan.
All that being said, the Electoral College still has a few things going for it. I mean, if you like coloring maps, it’s simply the best. More to the point, the Electoral College is a good system for everyone who doesn’t relish the idea of the election cycles ending in a spate of never-ending recount lawsuits. As Richard Posner pointed out over at Slate four years ago, one thing the Electoral College helps to provide is a sense of “certainty” about the outcome. You know ... most of the time:
A dispute over the outcome of an Electoral College vote is possible — it happened in 2000 — but it’s less likely than a dispute over the popular vote. The reason is that the winning candidate’s share of the Electoral College invariably exceeds his share of the popular vote. In last week’s election, for example, Obama received 61.7 percent of the electoral vote compared to only 51.3 percent of the popular votes cast for him and Romney. (I ignore the scattering of votes not counted for either candidate.) Because almost all states award electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, even a very slight plurality in a state creates a landslide electoral-vote victory in that state. A tie in the nationwide electoral vote is possible because the total number of votes — 538 — is an even number, but it is highly unlikely.*
Of course a tie in the number of popular votes in a national election in which tens of millions of votes are cast is even more unlikely. But if the difference in the popular vote is small, then if the winner of the popular vote were deemed the winner of the presidential election, candidates would have an incentive to seek a recount in any state (plus the District of Columbia) in which they thought the recount would give them more additional votes than their opponent. The lawyers would go to work in state after state to have the votes recounted, and the result would be debilitating uncertainty, delay, and conflict — look at the turmoil that a dispute limited to one state, Florida, engendered in 2000.
With that in mind, if you really want to tear down an election ritual of archaic origin that would pave the way for a more just and equitable election, I highly recommend we all aim our fire at this absurd tradition that elections have to be held on a Tuesday in November, which well and truly sucks for minorities and working people. That’s a worthier idea for a piece of lame-duck electoral reform, and frankly, it’s more in tune with the mood of the country.
If we pull that off, and still feel kind of hinky about the Electoral College, then sure, I’m up for anything. Let’s get rid of it and see what we learn. But just so you know, there’s no guarantee you’re going to like the result.
And remember whose company you’re keeping.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.