The Electoral College Is a Threat to 21st Century Democracy

January 4, 2021  • Dan Glickman

On Wednesday, a joint congressional session will take place to count and certify the electoral votes for an election mired in baseless claims of fraud, pointless recounts, ridiculous court challenges, widespread misinformation, and an outright assault on democratic norms by a sitting president. Despite the lack of evidence, dozens of House Republicans and a smaller group of senators allied with the president are expected to object to the count from some swing states. The Electoral College was designed to preserve the legitimacy of elections from interference by what James Madison called “the mischiefs of faction,” by which he likely meant partisan political parties. Clearly it is not working as intended.

The Electoral College is a threat to our democracy. The process has become vulnerable—independent or faithless electors could conceivably thwart the will of the voters for no clear reason. Although our founders felt we needed a brake against “mob rule,” it is incompatible with our current national credo that every vote counts.

In 2000, when the Electoral College system failed to deliver a clear winner, the presidential race was settled in court, not at the ballot box. It was only through the humility and grace shown by Al Gore in conceding to George W. Bush that we did not spiral into a true constitutional crisis. Imagine that same electoral count and process happening today. We should have learned our lesson two decades ago. We now see that an anti-democratic president seeking to hold onto power can probe and exploit weaknesses in this archaic system.

I believe the country should elect a president by popular vote. Every citizen’s vote ought to be counted equally regardless of where they live. The continued disconnect between the national popular vote and the Electoral College vote, which happened in 2000 and 2016, will deepen the distrust of the American people in the integrity of the voting process. A national popular vote would prevent a demagogue from pressuring state legislators to remove electors in favor of those who would subvert the will of the people and wreak havoc on our democracy.

The existence of the Electoral College is incompatible with our national credo that every vote counts.

Here is the challenge: materially changing or ideally abolishing the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment passed in Congress and ratified by the states. Let’s be clear about this: smaller states generally support the Electoral College because it increases their political power relative to larger states. So changing the system would be difficult at best. But reducing the opposition and fundamentally changing this system is not impossible.

We could get rid of the idea that this is an independent “college” of electors who can vote their own way notwithstanding the tradition of following the vote of the people in that state. There need not even be electors. Assign “points” instead of “votes,” which automatically go to the winner in that state and remove any independent group of third-party electors who could defy the popular vote in that state. If a state votes in a certain way, those electors (or points) would automatically go to the winner. No college needed. The downside to this common-sense idea is that a constitutional amendment would be needed to implement it.

Another option would be to apportion the points or electors proportionately by congressional district, as Nebraska and Maine do, so the process is not a winner-take-all by state population. This option could be more appealing as it doesn’t remove power from smaller and less populated regions. The change would also ensure that presidential candidates have to campaign in almost every state, not just swing states. Almost every state has congressional districts that are not homogenous and are represented by both Democratic and Republican majorities. There are vote-rich districts for Republicans in California and Democrats in Texas, and under this more representational process, one would see a much broader-based national campaign from both parties. Most importantly, this change could be done without a constitutional amendment because, under current law, state legislatures have the power to apportion their electors by congressional district.

At the end of the day, our toxic political environment is a challenging obstacle to making true change. But the Electoral College has become a key vulnerability to our democracy. Public trust in our democratic system is directly threatened when the popular vote for president and the electoral votes do not match. While it seems that we have weathered a potential constitutional crisis this time, an electoral catastrophe could be just around the corner. The Electoral College as enacted in our Constitution has become a direct threat to the great American experiment in self-government. We must fix it.

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