For many years, progressives and the Democratic left have been clamoring for a constitutional amendment that would replace the antiquated Electoral College with a popular vote for president. Their argument is simple and persuasive—chiefly, that the institution is undemocratic and, as the 2000 election made clear, not necessarily a reflection of the popular vote.
Ironically, Democrats are making this argument at a time when their presidential candidates have fared well in the Electoral College in recent contests. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have voted for a Democrat in the last six presidential contests. These account for 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the presidency. In contrast, the 13 states that voted Republican in the last six presidential election cycles have just 102 electoral votes. This year, if Hillary Clinton happens to capture Florida’s 29 electoral votes and the 19 states (plus D.C.) that Democrats have had in the bank since 1992, it’s all over.
Indeed, since 2008, the Electoral College has clearly worked in the Democrats’ favor. Large population states with lots of electoral votes have gone from swing states to Democratic enclaves. Barack Obama scored larger electoral vote victories than popular vote victories over both John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. In 2008, Obama defeated McCain by 7 percentage points in the popular vote, but by a better than two-to-one margin—365 to 173—in the Electoral College. In 2012, Obama bested Romney by 4 percentage points in the popular vote, but by a better than three-to-two margin—332 to 206—in the Electoral College.
The case can be made that the Electoral College actually magnifies the Democrats’ increasing demographic advantage, since the states that are growing—and thereby acquiring more electoral votes—are the ones seeing a disproportionate increase in their minority populations. As The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza has written, “Democrats have expanded their map in recent years thanks to the large majorities they win among black and Hispanic voters and the increasingly smaller share of the vote that whites constitute. States such as North Carolina and Virginia have all gone from generally reliable Republican states to real swing states. [Actually, Virginia may have since evolved from a swing state to a Democratic state.] There has been no similar Republican map expansion. … Any state with a large or growing nonwhite population has become more and more difficult for Republicans to win.” The GOP’s problem is not just Donald Trump, then, although he has definitely accelerated the party’s downward spiral.
So, should progressives and leftist Democrats do an about-face and accept the Electoral College as an institution, since it provides a more comfortable margin of victory than the popular vote?
No—and here’s why.
First, the Electoral College is a system that probably depresses the vote in most states. In 48 of the 50 states, it’s winner-take-all—meaning that the candidate with more votes in one state wins all the pledged electors of that state. A direct consequence of this winner-take-all apportionment of electoral votes is that candidates focus more on swing states than on other states—which would not be the case if elections were decided by the popular vote. After the primaries, the candidates focus on these states and ignore the remaining states whose Electoral Votes are taken for granted. As a result, presidential candidates spend little if any time campaigning in California (which usually votes for the Democratic candidate) or Texas (which usually votes for the Republican candidate) unless they are holding fundraising events there. In non-swing states, voters know their vote will not change much the result of the election, so they don’t have motivation to go to the polls.
Second, under the Electoral College, less populous states are favored, because the number of electors is not proportional to the states’ populations. Because every state’s electoral vote is equal to the number of House members it has—a measure of the state’s population—plus two more, which reflects every state’s two senators. So a state like Wyoming, with just one House member, trebles its import in the Electoral College. This means that some voters have more power than others, depending on where they live.
In recent years, many on the left have been pursuing something called the National Popular Vote (NPV). It’s an interstate compact by which states agree to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. But the measure only takes effect when states accounting for a majority of the votes (270) sign on. As Nate Silver of 538.com has pointed out, all of the states that have joined so far are blue: “The seven states where President Obama won by the widest margins in 2012, along with D.C., have joined. So have three others—New Jersey, Illinois, and Washington—where Obama won by at least 15 percentage points.” No purple or red states have signed on.
Based on the results of 2008 and 2012 and the likely result this year, you would think Republican politicians would seriously consider it. Think again. While red states now suffer the worst from the vicissitudes of the Electoral College, Republicans in those states seem not the slightest bit interested in NPV. No doubt, the memory of the 2000 Gore vs. Bush presidential contest—in which Bush lost the popular vote but prevailed in the Electoral College (and, crucially, in the Supreme Court) remains fresh in their minds. But, as we have seen, much has changed in the past 16 years.
Instead, Republican activists have been pursuing a scheme in several states that would apportion electoral votes by congressional district. As nationally recognized election law expert Richard Hasen describes it, “Instead of awarding all of the state’s Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate getting the most votes in each of these states, under the proposed plans most of the Electoral College votes would be awarded to the winner in each congressional district—and thanks to Republican gerrymandering of those districts, such a scheme would be would be a windfall for Republicans.” More specifically, as political scientist Alan Abramowitz points out, “Republicans controlled the redistricting process after the 2010 census in far more states than Democrats as a result of the GOP’s big gains in the 2010 midterm elections. By drawing congressional districts that favored the GOP, Republican state legislatures and governors gave their party a big edge in the battle for control of the House of Representatives. The result was that in 2012, even though Democratic candidates outpolled Republican candidates by more than a million votes across the nation, Republicans kept control of the House by a margin of 234 seats to 201 seats.”
Had such a plan been in place in 2012, Mitt Romney would be our president.
Of course, there is no interest in changing the method of awarding electoral votes in states currently controlled by Democrats or in states currently controlled by Republicans that were carried by Romney in 2012. Battleground states like the attention they receive and the power they have, and are also unlikely to join this scheme.
As yet, no state has moved to adopt this plan. (Nebraska and Maine decided many decades ago to cast their electoral votes this way, but when they did, their political balance of power wasn’t such that this amounted to a partisan ploy.) However, there is a chance this system might still be adopted in states that were carried by Obama in both 2008 and 2012 (and possibly by Clinton this year) but where Republicans currently control the governorship and both houses of the legislature.
Using the criteria of majority rule, fair representation, and greater voter turnout, the popular vote count should clearly replace the Electoral College. But will Democrats suffer as a result? For an answer, we turn to The Emerging Democratic Majority, the admirably far-sighted 2002 study of the changing electorate by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. They forecast the dawning of a new progressive era. The long-term patterns they predicted have continued to work as they foresaw, with one caveat: Their thesis applies only to presidential elections, at least for the present. And the outlook there looks even more promising. Over the past few presidential election cycles, Democrats have been successful in wooing minority voters to the polls and winning their vote once there. Hispanics voted for President Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012 by a margin of 71 percent to 27 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. The margins were even larger among Asian American and African-American voters. College-educated voters have turned to the Democrats in growing numbers, as have millennials. At the presidential level, at least, the Democratic popular vote majority has already emerged.
Democrats should have no fears about choosing the president of the United States by popular vote. More important, beyond any partisan concerns that could shift with the political tides, their commitment to majority rule and democratic values requires them to favor this signally important change.