The idea that the Republican-controlled state governments of six states, led by Virginia, might rejigger the way those states award Electoral College votes (in what would be a blatant attempt to advantage future Republican tickets) seems to be blowing over.
Too many high-ranking Republicans, including key players in some of the six states, have publicly repudiated the idea.
That’s a good thing. Blatant manipulation of election rules for partisan purposes are ugly, wrong and undermine confidence in democracy.
But before the idea disappears (and it could, of course, come back another time), let’s dredge up a cool-but-disturbing little-known historical fact that puts an unexpected spin on the kerfuffle.
Virginia, which was in many ways the lead state in the recent idea, has used the familiar winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes since the election of 1800, when Virginia’s own Thomas Jefferson defeated incumbent President John Adams. The Virginia Legislature adopted winner-take-all in a blatant (and successful) effort to help Jefferson. Jefferson approved of the measure. Massachusetts responded by likewise adopting winner-take-all to advantage its favorite son, Adams.
A chart in this historical post from Fairvote.org shows that most states used other methods of choosing electors in the early days of the Electoral College system, but winner-take-all gained momentum in the 1820s and soon became the method in almost all states and has remained so ever since.
If you can stand my dredging up a few arguments from my recent series on the Constitution, the latest anecdote reminds us of a few things:
- The winner-take-all system, to which we are so accustomed, is not required by the Constitution. The recently proposed Virginia plan for allowing split electoral votes would be constitutional. Even before the recent effort to change the apportionment of electoral votes, two states – Maine and Nebraska – have allowed for split electoral votes over recent cycles.
- The practice of changing the system of apportioning a state’s electoral votes is not new and, as in 1800, it was generally done to advantage the ticket of the party that controlled a particular state. The recent Virginia gambit is unseemly, but not unprecedented.
- There is nothing logical or pure about the winner-take-all system and even less that is logical or pure about the Electoral College system. It’s just what we are used to. The winner-take-all system is among the reasons that our nation runs the risk every four years of electing a president who has not won even a plurality of the national popular vote. This has occurred four times in U.S. history, most recently in 2000. It’s only a matter of time before it happens again.
- The Electoral College system itself, which turns every presidential election into a battle for a few swing votes in a few swing states, is an absurdity that also leaves our presidential elections susceptible to the kind of manipulation that Virginia and a few other states are now contemplating. It is not popular (most recent polls indicate that the public would prefer a simple popular vote). New democracies, who have the benefit of our experience, never adopt anything like it.
Although as it currently functions it has pretty much nothing left of the reasons that the Constitution’s framers devised it, we are stuck with the Electoral College mostly because it is in the Constitution and the Constitution establishes such a high bar for amendment that it is almost unimaginable that we could summon the three supermajorities (two-thirds votes of each house of Congress and ratification by 38 of the 50 states) necessary to amend.