Taking Advantage of the Electoral College: Two Possibilities

I don’t know about you, but I’m still avoiding the news. 

I do know, however, as votes are still being counted, Hillary Clinton is leading her opponent. She has 60.5 million; he has 60.1 million. (And roughly 6.2 million fools voted for candidates who had no chance to win.) In fact, her margin will continue to grow, since California is still counting votes and California voters strongly support Clinton. 

In a better world, these results would mean Clinton won the election. But in this world, we didn’t hold just one election. We held 51 separate elections, one for each state and one for the District of Columbia. The winner of each of those 51 elections thereby received a certain number of “electoral votes”. 

For example, Clinton beat her opponent by more than 2.5 million votes in California. That means she will get all of California’s 55 electoral votes. But if she’d won the state by 1,000 votes instead, she’d still get all 55. With some very minor exceptions, it’s winner-take-all. This is the system our founding fathers came up with more than 200 years ago. 

Furthermore, the number of electoral votes each state receives isn’t based purely on population. California, for example, has about 38.5 million residents. Montana has 1 million. One might think that California would get 38 times as many electoral votes as Montana, but that’s not how it works. Each state (and D.C.) gets at least 3 electoral votes. So empty Montana gets 3, while not-empty California gets 55, or 18 times what Montana gets, not 38 times.

Another way of saying this is that because we elect a President in this strangely indirect way, individual votes cast in Montana are worth more than ones cast in California. 

Our founding fathers weren’t idiots, of course. The complicated system they devised was partly a way to give smaller states more representation than bigger states, because small states like Rhode Island were afraid they’d be bullied by big states like Virginia. That’s why the small states were given extra weight in choosing a President. (Why the big states weren’t equally concerned about being cheated is an interesting question.)

So, officially speaking, we won’t know who the next President will be until December 19th. That is when the various “electors” submit their ballots. 

But wait! The founding fathers didn’t completely trust the wisdom of the voters. They had more trust in the electors, who were presumed to be pillars of the community. The voters might prefer an orange-haired demagogue or TV personality as President. The electors would presumably know better. They might have the good sense to choose a former Senator and Secretary of State. They might even choose whichever candidate won the nationwide vote. The point is that there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that requires an elector to vote for the candidate who won that elector’s state.

Now, it’s true that some states would levy a small fine on an elector who applied his or her judgment and voted for someone who didn’t win the state’s presidential election. But other states don’t even levy a fine. Electors from those states can vote for anyone with no penalty at all (except a lot of criticism from disgruntled voters back in their home state).

The ability of the presidential electors to vote for whomever they want has given rise to a petition at Change.org. It calls for the Electoral College to choose Hillary Clinton on December 19th. If she ends up with, say, 230 electors pledged to her after all the statewide ballots are counted, she would only need 40 electors to switch to her. Whoever receives 270 electoral votes become President. That’s how the system was designed to work.

I don’t expect 40 or so Republican electors to do what’s best for their country and the world, so I’m not expecting much from the petition. But I signed it anyway, as have more than a million other people. As they say, any port in a storm, especially a  world-class (pardon my French) shit storm! 

Fortunately, there is another way to eventually use the Electoral College to make America a better place. Several states have already adopted legislation that would award their electoral votes to whoever wins the nationwide “popular” vote. The legislation will take effect in those states as soon as states with a combined total of 270 electoral votes pass the legislation. After that, whichever candidate got the most votes nationwide in the next Presidential election would automatically receive at least 270 electoral votes and become President. It wouldn’t matter how states that haven’t adopted the legislation allocated their electoral votes.

The great thing about this plan, which is called the National Interstate Popular Vote Compact, is that it wouldn’t require changing the U.S. Constitution. The anti-democratic effect of the Electoral College would be eliminated without eliminating the Electoral College itself.  It’s very difficult to amend our Constitution. It’s only been done fifteen times in the last 200 years. So a plan that uses the Electoral College instead of trying to get rid of it has much to recommend it. (Of course, as long as the Electoral College exists, some electors might still go their own way.)

As of 2016, ten states and the District of Columbia have joined the Compact. Their 165 electoral votes are 61% of the 270 votes needed for it to have legal force. In addition, the necessary  legislation is pending in Michigan and Pennsylvania. If those states adopt it, we’ll have 74% of the necessary 270 votes.

As you might expect, states controlled by Republicans are less likely to join the Compact. Republicans love the fact that they’ve won two of the last five Presidential elections while losing the popular vote (The man who became President lost to his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, by 550,000 votes in 2000).  That doesn’t mean, however, that the Compact will never come into play. It just means Democrats need to take control of more state governments.

It might even be possible to get the necessary legislation passed in Republican-controlled states using public referendums or ballot questions. Most people, if asked, would probably agree that the candidate who gets the most votes should win the election. Well-financed campaigns to get the issue on the ballot in several more states might hasten the day when the person who gets the most votes will always win the election.

Of course, many Americans already believe that’s how our system of government works. Whoever gets the most votes wins. Knowledge of the Constitution isn’t our strong point. After the election we just had, I don’t know what is. 

One thought on “Taking Advantage of the Electoral College: Two Possibilities

  1. Pingback: It’s Supposed To Be One Person, One Vote | Whereof One Can Speak

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