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Electoral College: Trump was against it before he was for it

Donald Trump denounced the Electoral College system in 2012 as “a disaster for a democracy … a total sham and a travesty.”

President Donald Trump
Donald Trump is one of the four individuals to ever win presidency while finishing second in the overall nationwide popular vote.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Funny or sad? You decide.

One of the latest emails to the members of the Trump/Pence Make America Great Again Committee, the committee did not ask for a contribution. (This is pretty rare, the MAGA Committee asks for a contribution at least once and usually more than once a week.)

Instead, the email referenced above asked supporters to sign the Official Trump Pence Make America Great Again petition to “protect the Electoral College” system as the best way to choose a president.

The email included a recent POTUS-ian tweet arguing, somewhat strangely, that Democrats want to change the system because they can’t “win it at the ballot box.”

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He didn’t explain clearly how “winning it at the ballot box” differs from getting the most American voters to vote for you, but it’s not too hard to figure out that he means that winning a presidential election does not require that you get the most votes, in the ordinary plain meaning of getting the most votes, but, obviously in the somewhat more complex meaning of getting the most electoral votes, even if (as happened in 2016) you don’t get the most popular votes.

1 of 4 to win while losing popular vote

By the merest coincidence, Trump is one of the four individuals to ever win the presidency while finishing second in the overall nationwide popular vote. (In fact, if we’re talking about sheer size of negative margin, the 2.8 million-vote margin by which Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton dwarfs many-fold the largest negative margin by which anyone has ever won the presidency.)

But our Constitution establishes electoral votes as the key to winning. I have often criticized this aspect of our system. I understand pretty well some of the reasons the Framers came up with the system. It may have made more sense then, but not for any reasons that make particular sense now. In fact, the Framers did not require that states even hold a popular vote (and, in the early going, many did not) in connection with the choice of a president.

I’ll link at the bottom to a recent smart historical piece that tackles the question of what the Framers were up to. It’s consistent with several historical points I’ve made in the past. Most of the Framers couldn’t picture how a popular vote would figure into the selection of the president. (As I’ve often noted, there were no national parties, and the kind of men who might be considered potential presidents would never, in those days, have campaigned for the office. Active campaigning by candidates didn’t happen for more than a century. And many states didn’t hold a popular vote at all in the first few presidential elections.)

The Framers didn’t want Congress to pick the president, so they invented the position of “electors”  (in fact they put it into the Constitution – it’s still there – that no member of Congress could serve as an elector),  with each elector voting for two people for president, one of whom had to be from a different state. The idea was to generate a list of highly regarded candidates, while  assuming that seldom would anyone after George Washington win a majority). The original plan then required the U.S. House to choose from that list of five.

(I had never seen this fact before, but at the time of the framing most of the states didn’t have a popular election for governor either. In most of the 13 original states, the governors were elected by the Legislature.)

Framers worried about corruption by foreign power

The story linked below argues that one of the big reasons for creating the Electoral College was that the Framers worried about a foreign power corrupting members of Congress in order to influence the choice of a president, presumably favorable to the foreign state doing the corrupting.

As you can see from the above (and more if you follow the link at the bottom), the system as it has operated for most of its history has little to do with any of those original purposes. And most of the most common defenses of the Electoral College have little to do with anything the Framers had hoped to accomplish.

One of the worst features of the system as evolved – that in almost all states one candidate gets all of that state’s electoral votes, even if they carry the state by one percent of the vote – certainly wasn’t part of the original plan and has nothing to do with any constitutional requirement. (Two states don’t do it.)

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None of the above tells us much about what system we might use instead, and I won’t list any of the ideas for doing it differently.

But I will note that Donald J. Trump, before he became the biggest popular-vote-loser ever to win the prize, denounced the Electoral College system in 2012 as “a disaster for a democracy … a total sham and a travesty.”

It turns out that Trump — who had been a registered Democrat in the years before the 2008 election, switched to the Republican Party soon after the election of Barack Obama. Then Obama won a second term in 2012, and Trump decided not only to repudiate his former party, but also the Electoral College system (about which he has now changed his mind again).

On election night in 2008, it appeared for a while that that Obama would win the electoral vote majority necessary for a second term even though it looked like Republican Mitt Romney was going to win the popular vote. Trump — contrary to the position he took after his own loser-win — tweeted:

“We should have a revolution in this country!”

And “More votes equals a loss…revolution!”

And Trump called the Electoral College “a disaster for a democracy … a total sham and a travesty.”

All of that was documented at the time, here.

Interestingly, when the total sham and travesty made him POTUS in 2016, he took a kinder view. This would be a good time to ask him how he will feel about the system if he wins the 2020 popular vote but loses in the Electoral College.

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Finally, here’s the Washington Post op-ed that I highlighted at the top, in which Joshua Spivak, who has degrees in history and law, sheds some light on what the Framers thought they were doing in Philadelphia in 1787. It’s headlined:

“The electoral college is a failure. The Founding Fathers would probably agree.”