Abolish the Electoral College? Proceed at One's Own Risk.

Abolish the Electoral College? Proceed at One's Own Risk.
AP Photo/Zach Gibson
Abolish the Electoral College? Proceed at One's Own Risk.
AP Photo/Zach Gibson
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The push to abolish the Electoral College is picking up steam as Democrats turn their attention to the 2020. Former Attorney General Eric Holder is among the latest high-profile Democrats to call for eliminating the age-old system, deeming it a “vestige of the past” and “undemocratic.” Some of the Democrats in the crowded 2020 field, ranging from South Bend, Ind., Mayor Peter Buttigieg to Sens. Elizabeth and Kirsten Gillibrand, had previously sounded the call. Warren has argued for a change in which “every vote matters.”

A group of big-state Democratic senators, including Gillibrand (New York), Dick Durbin (Illinois), and Dianne Feinstein (California), introduced a constitutional amendment Tuesday that would jettison the Electoral College. The measure is mostly an exercise to spur debate because such amendments require two-thirds majority votes in both the chambers of Congress, and GOP Senate leaders would no doubt block it from receiving any floor consideration. 

Complaints about the Electoral College arose in 2000 when Al Gore won the popular vote narrowly over George W. Bush, but was denied the presidency after a fiercely contested Florida recount put Bush in the White House. The Democratic push this time is more than grousing. Amid the party’s continued furor over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Donald Trump even though she won the popular vote, it has become a rallying cry.

If American history is any guide, however, both major political parties should be careful what they wish for. Altering the Constitution doesn’t always produce the expected consequences. Republicans’ rage over Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to break precedent and seek a third (and then a fourth) term led directly to the 22nd Amendment. Passed by Congress in 1947, it was ratified in enough states to take effect in 1951. Its most obvious result was to deny Dwight Eisenhower a chance to run in 1960, a race he’d have been favored to win. Goodbye, Camelot.

The Republican establishment hasn’t learned that lesson. To them, the equation is clear: Defending the traditional system puts the GOP in the best position for President Trump to win a second term. But some Republicans wonder if the conventional wisdom is short-sighted. For starters, these contrarians are concerned with how the existing Electoral College dynamic has reduced civic engagement in whole areas of the country, from the deeply red South, rural Plains and mountain West to the millions of essentially disenfranchised Republicans in Democrat-dominated California. Such places are ignored every four years as the two major parties and their respective presidential tickets spend almost all of their time and treasure in roughly a dozen battleground states.

Of more pressing concern, these GOP contrarians also point out that the electoral map that currently favors them is not set in stone.

In addition, Republicans who support shifting to greater reliance on the popular vote argue that in five to 10 years, their candidates may find themselves at a disadvantage even under the current system. That’s because demographics are changing palpably and Republicans might well lose their ability to win the important swing state of Florida, and possibly even the GOP anchor state of Texas.

In 2010, according to the U.S. Census, Hispanics made up 23 percent of Florida’s population. Projections put that figure at nearly 26 percent in 2017. Florida’s Cuban-Americans, once reliably Republican, are now split, with the younger generation increasingly voting Democratic. Following Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans, who trend Democratic, have moved to Florida by the tens of thousands.

Popular Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis could help blunt Democratic inroads in the near term, but keeping the Sunshine State in play might require significant recalibration.

Texas is another important consideration. It certainly is solidly red today: The Lone Star State has voted Republican in the last 10 elections. But it’s worth taking a closer look. In six of those elections, a Texan named George Bush was on the GOP ballot. And in the previous 20 elections, going back to William McKinley, the state went for every Democratic presidential nominee except Al Smith in 1928, Richard Nixon in 1972, and both times Adlai Stevenson faced World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower. Otherwise, the map was a sea of Democratic blue.

The point here is that over time the political leanings of states change, sometimes radically. For a while, they may swing purple. They may stay that way, or they may move to the other camp. Sometimes their reputations lag behind the reality. From the time of the Civil War to the onset of the Great Depression, Maine was the great bellwether, leading to the mantra taught to schoolchildren across the country: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” In 1936, however, Franklin Roosevelt swept every state in the union except Maine and Vermont, leading to a puckish quip from FDR campaign manager James Farley, “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.” But the latter state has changed, too. Until Patrick Leahy was elected in the 1970s, Vermont had never had a Democratic senator. Today, it’s so liberal that Leahy’s home-state Senate colleague felt the need to hyphenate the word “Democrat” and attach “Socialist.” Republicans need not apply.

Could such a metamorphosis take place in Texas? Why not, it happened only a generation ago in California. And last year, Democrat Beto O’Rourke came within two percentage points of ousting Sen. Ted Cruz. Was that an anomaly, or the first signs of a purple flower blooming? Just a month before the election, a Quinnipiac survey found O’Rourke leading among voters under the age of 50, with the support of 66 percent of likely voters between the ages of 18 and 34, while Cruz held a significant lead among older voters.

A March 1 Quinnipiac poll of possible 2020 matchups has Trump essentially tied in the state with Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and O’Rourke.

“If Florida and Texas shift to the Democrats, you look at that blue wall and there’s zero path to victory for Republicans using the current winner-take-all” Electoral College system, Saul Anuzis, the former Republican Party chairman in Michigan, told RealClearPolitics.

History suggests that this warning is exaggerated. For one thing, historically Democratic bastions such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania could very well move in the other direction.

Moreover, Anuzis is not pessimistic. He and others are suggesting that if Republicans are forced to compete for the popular vote it could ultimately strengthen the GOP by making it less of a regional party and leaving it less reliant on an aging demographical cohort: namely, white voters.

These would-be reformers have aligned themselves with a movement called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (Anuzis is a senior consultant). It would go into effect when enacted by states collectively possessing a majority of the electoral votes necessary to elect a president: 270 out of 538. Instead of each state designating all of its electoral votes to the winner of that state’s popular vote, those states in the compact would agree to hand over their electors to the candidate who receives the most votes across the nation.

Unlike the Democratic Party push to abolish the Electoral College, which would take a constitutional amendment, the Newt Gingrich-endorsed compact preserves it, but lessens its power. While national political figures clash over the Electoral College, a growing number of states have already quietly moved to largely bypass it by approving the compact. Last week, Delaware’s governor signed the compact into law, just weeks after Colorado did the same. On Wednesday, New Mexico followed suit.

Eleven other states and the District of Columbia have likewise done so, with the initiative nearing the 200 mark for combined electoral votes but still significantly shy of the 270 needed to switch the system.  That’s one more reason, advocates say, Trump supporters shouldn’t fear the popular vote compact – it has no real chance of becoming law in enough states to replace the Electoral College by 2020.

It’s also based on federalism and respect for state rights, Anuzis explained, and if it’s not working the way states planned, state legislatures can change it. Under the compact, instead of presidential candidates focusing all their time and money on a small number of battleground states every four years and showering those states with pet projects and federal spending to help woo voters there, candidates would be forced to spend time campaigning across the country.

 “If you look at little bit beyond Trump and look at the hard math and shifting demographics, going to a system that encourages everyone to vote and candidates to talk to as many people as possible, Republicans have a chance of winning in a very fair fight,” said Anthony Delcollo, a Republican member of the Delaware Senate who co-sponsored the compact bill.

Before winning the Electoral College, Trump expressed distrust of the system, frequently referring to it as “rigged.” He was onto something, Delcollo argued, because the system is rigged against Republicans with an estimated 240 electors coming from traditionally blue states and only 115 from traditionally red ones.

“If Texas does become a swing state in the future, then that number drops to roughly 70,” Delcollo said. “If Texas becomes purple it becomes very, very hard to win in the Electoral College, and if Florida becomes blue, that means a Democrat would win every single time” – assuming, of course, that other states don’t shift in the opposite direction.

Before his 2016 victory upended conventional wisdom, in 2012 Trump used similar language to decry the Electoral College, calling it a “disaster for democracy … a total sham and a travesty.”

Even a month after his win, Trump was still naturally inclined to favor a popular vote system, telling CBS’ “60 Minutes” that he would rather have a process that depends on “simple votes,” as he phrased it.

“You know, you get 100 million votes, and somebody else gets 90 million, and you win,” Trump said. “There’s a reason for doing this. Because it brings all the states into play.”

After Democrats started gunning for the Electoral College, Trump changed his mind, recently arguing on Twitter that “with the popular vote, you go to just the large states – the cities would end up running the country. Smaller states and the entire Midwest would up losing all power & we can’t let that happen.”

The president seemed to echo sentiments from some of his most ardent supporters on the right who want to preserve the system that handed him his surprise victory. But Democrats are working overtime to prevent a repeat performance, strategically holding their national convention in Milwaukee, Wis., as a show of force in a state Clinton neglected -- and failed to win.

Victor Davis Hanson became the latest conservative to push back against progressive Democrats’ calls to scrap the two-century-old tradition of granting electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote within each state.

The Electoral College was designed in part to ensure that candidates “at least visited the small and rural states of America,” Hanson wrote in an op-ed. “The … Founding Fathers did not want elections to rest solely with larger urban populations. The Electoral College balances out the popular vote.”

Hanson characterized the attacks on the system as an unprincipled power grab aimed at preventing another Trump win, which could again happen without carrying the popular vote.

Supporters of the popular vote countered by stressing that the nation’s five biggest cities – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia – represent just 6 percent of the country’s population. Moreover, the population of the 50 biggest cities represents only 15 percent of the population.

Besides, they say, it’s a myth that the Founders established the Electoral College to prevent elections from becoming contests where presidential candidates would simply campaign in big cities, because in the late 1700s 95 percent of the population lived in places with fewer than 2,500 people.

 “It’s basically a travesty that a small selection of swing states decide our president, and they get more funding per capita and they wash out the voice of all the states,” Delcollo said. “There’s nothing small-government or conservative about that.”

Susan Crabtree is a veteran Washington reporter who has spent two decades covering the White House and Congress.



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