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Why we (still) need to get rid of the Electoral College to decide presidential elections

The Electoral College system has almost nothing going for it and introduces many unnecessary flaws and distortions into our poor, dear old nation’s effort to choose a leader.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar reading the final certification of Electoral College votes on Thursday, January 7, 2021, during a joint session of Congress.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar reading the final certification of Electoral College votes on Thursday, January 7, 2021, during a joint session of Congress.
J. Scott Applewhite/Pool via REUTERS

I’ve ranted long, often and hard against the Electoral College system. But, given the 2020 Trumpian coup attempt (which relied on technical weak spots in the Electoral College system) and the ongoing threat that the jury-rigged system poses to our democracy, I thought perhaps I should dig up my 2012 list of the Constitution’s biggest flaws, which I’ll link to just below.

In my humble opinion, the Electoral College system has almost nothing going for it and introduces many unnecessary flaws and distortions into our poor, dear old nation’s effort to choose a leader. It gave us Donald Trump in 2016, even though he lost the popular vote. That was bad enough.

But then the Electoral College system provided various schemes Trump used to try to overturn the result in 2020 — after he lost both the popular and electoral votes. And, I hate to acknowledge this, but the Electoral College system as described in the Constitution — and the outdated, ridiculously complex Electoral Count Act of 1887 — provided myriad possibilities for cheating Americans of their power to decide who should preside over their national government.

Trump’s effort to steal a second term actually led to people getting killed (although I suppose you can’t say it was the Electoral College’s fault that Trump and his admirers took matters into their own violent and lawless hands; it just provided some of the flaws that they attempted to exploit).

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I fear we will never get rid of the farshtunkene thing. It would take an enduring supermajority to amend the Constitution to do so. And such a supermajority is unlikely to form as long as one of our two major parties (the Republican Party, in the current moment) sees the flaws of the system as improving its chances of winning elections without winning the most votes.

But, in case you are willing to spend some time and a few brain waves understanding why the system evolved and how it distorts presidential campaigns and elections, I decided to dig up a piece from my 2012 series on problems with the U.S. Constitution listing my 10 biggest complaints against the Electoral College system.

(This link will get you that list, written long before the Electoral College gave us loser-winner Donald Trump and including many undesirable features of the system unmentioned above.)

I’ll also mention what could be an easy fix (certainly easier than a Constitutional amendment). It’s an idea to work around the Electoral College without the extremely high supermajority upon supermajority stuff needed to adopt a constitutional amendment. 

It goes by a few names, the clearest of which is “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.”

In brief, it would require a group of states that, together, control at least 270 Electoral votes (the number it takes to win a presidential election) to each pass a law committing themselves to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. 

Several states, but not nearly enough to equal 270, have joined the compact. Minnesota isn’t one, although there are Minnesotans working on that. Bear in mind, it wouldn’t take a majority of states to agree to this. It would take a number of states whose combined electoral vote was 270 or more. 

The idea has been around for a while. Several states, including some with big payloads of electoral votes (California, New York, Illinois) have signed on. (In Minnesota, it has passed the state House in 2019 but not the Senate.)

The arguments for the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact are several and obvious, starting with the principle of one person, one vote and the candidate who gets the most votes should win.

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Republicans, for one obvious self-serving reason, don’t like the idea. Two of their recent nominees — George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 — won the presidency while losing the national popular vote. Whatever complicated or principled-sounding arguments they might hide behind, one suspects that’s the obvious reason for their reluctance.

Pew has polled on the idea six times since 2000. A majority, every time, endorsed the idea that the candidate who gets the most votes should win presidential elections. 

And a big majority of Democrats endorsed it every time (the lowest it has scored among Democrats was 69 percent, the highest was 84). 

Once (2012), a narrow majority of Republicans endorsed the idea that the candidate who gets the most votes should win, but since then, in five polls on the subject, the percentage of Republicans who favor the idea has ranged from 27 to 42.