The combination of the election of the current incumbent, even though he lost the popular vote in 2016, with extra impetus from the fact that said incumbent is so bad at his job, has added juice to a longstanding awareness that the Electoral College system is a weird, antiquated, sub-optimal way to choose a president, and one that distorts democracy in several ways.
It not only creates a way for the popular vote loser to beat the winner (as has happened two of the past five elections), it creates an incentive for candidates to neglect 30 or more states that everyone knows will go red or blue and focus on (and pander to) 10 or so that are deemed to be “swing” states. This is even though three of the four biggest population states contain more than 88 million Americans; California and New York are deemed safe for the Democrats, and Texas has been viewed as a red state (although there is talk of Texas coming into play).
I would love to see a better system. In my 2012 MinnPost series “Imperfect Union: The Constitutional Roots of the Mess We’re in,” I went on at some length about the problems of the E-College system, and also about how the Framers came up with the thing.
Here’s a summary: The Constitution did not, and still does not, require that any state even hold a presidential election, and many of them did not in the early history of the presidency. The Constitution did create the position of presidential “elector,” to be appointed by the state legislatures by any method they might choose. The Framers assumed that the relative few members of the elite who would be chosen would be familiar with various possible presidents from around the country.
And the Framers certainly didn’t say that all of each state’s electors had to vote for the same guy, although 48 of the 50 states now do it that way. Two states (Maine and Nebraska) do not have a winner-take-all system.
In fact the Framers did not even envision such a thing as a nationwide popular election for president could work, since in 1787 there was no national media, no national political parties, no tradition of nominating conventions — and certainly nothing remotely resembling the system of primaries that produce such nominees was in the mind of any framer.
From Washington through Lincoln and beyond, it was considered disgraceful for presidential candidates to say or do anything publicly to advance their election. In other words, they didn’t campaign or give speeches or take positions. Candidates for president didn’t start running around the country campaigning until roughly the 1890s. The first primaries were in 1912, and only 13 states had them.
My main point above is that very little of the jury-rigged system we now have for choosing a president was envisioned in anything George Washington, James Madison and the boys wrote in Philadelphia in the long hot summer of 1787.
From that 2012 series here’s a link to a catalog of 10 reasons why the E-college system is a problem. And nothing in that series was a reaction to the Trump election, which was then still four years off.
But I fear the obstacles to meaningful change are quite high. The reasons for that are primarily partisan, plus the power of the myth of the demigod Framers, even though, as I just said, the E-College system as it now functions has little do with anything they envisioned or intended.
There may be – in fact, I ‘m sure there would be – difficulties in running a proper national election in which all votes would be equal and whoever got the most votes would win. To be done properly, it would require national standards that would wipe away huge state-by-state disparities in how easy and hard it is to register and vote, although such a wiping would obviously be a step forward for American democracy.
Minnesotans may be a bit spoiled, since our norms and practices of election administration are among the best in the nation. But you don’t have to be a close student of the matter to know that, in many states, despicable tricks are used to make it harder for people of certain races or parties to vote than others. And even without corruption, a fair vote would hard to accomplish in such a large, populous nation as ours.
But the E-College system builds in several corruptions. For example, small states carry more weight than their populations would justify because each state gets two bonus electoral votes beyond what their pure population would entitle them to in the U.S. House. That supposedly represents their two Senate seats, but was really a concession to the small states to get them to ratify the Constitution.
Still, if we want to be the glorious example to the world of democracy as it should be, we should be very motivated to make our system better.
As you may have heard or read, there is a proposal that tries to guarantee that the winner of the national popular vote would be guaranteed of becoming president. It’s called “The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.” The idea is that states – not all, but enough that among them they control a majority a majority of electoral votes, would enact a compact pledging all their E-votes to whichever candidate won the most popular votes on presidential Election Day. Twelve states plus the District of Columbia have signed on so far, representing 181 of the 270 E-Votes needed. Minnesota has not joined, although the proposal comes up every session and has been introduced in both the Minnesota Houses and Senate at present, but has not had a floor vote.