By Michael A. Smith, Emporia State University
With the 2020 campaign season having already begun (ugh), Democrats are revving up to do away with the Electoral College. For them, the case is a strong one. In the entire history of the United States, only five Presidential elections have seen the popular vote winner fail to become president. Yet two of those were in the 21st Century, and Democrats got the short end both times. Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by about half of a million votes, yet George W. Bush became president after the notorious, 6-week Florida recount battle. Hillary Clinton boosted the margin to 3 million votes—but still lost the presidency. History geeks and trivia buffs will love this next part: although the Democratic Party is a very different coalition than it was in the past, it is still worth noting that they were the ones that won the popular vote and lost the presidency in all five of these elections (the others were 1824, 1876, and 1888)!
In general, Democrats have a huge “wasted vote” problem. Starting in 1992, the donkeys have bested the elephants for the popular vote in every presidential election but one (the lone exception was 2004, the first presidential race after the 9/11 attacks). That is no coincidence. In presidential elections, Democrats generally command a slight majority today. Problem is, this majority includes large concentrations of voters in big cities and their closer-in suburbs, many of which are found in noncompetitive, high population states like California and New York. In 2016, Clinton defeated Trump by more than three million votes in California (a nearly two-to-one margin there), meaning that state alone can account for her popular vote victory.
As Philip Bump points out in this Washington Post analysis, the wasted vote problem not only vexes Dems in the Electoral College, it also causes them to overestimate the impact of gerrymandering. It is true that gerrymandering can skew election results. It is also true that while both parties do it, it generally works against Democrats today because many larger “purple” states have Republican majorities in their state legislatures, while California, once ground zero for Democratic gerrymandering, now has citizens redistricting commissions, thanks to a 2008 ballot initiative successfully pumped up by then-Governor Schwarzenegger. Out of office since 2011, Ah-nold is now out to “terminate gerrymandering” (his phrase) in other states (but see here for an interesting side note on how California Democrats kept a hand in redistricting anyway).
At any rate, Democrats tend to exaggerate the harm done to their party by gerrymandering. While it is a problem, the wasted vote problem is larger. Thus, a movement is afoot to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with a national, popular vote for president. Just last week, the Colorado Legislature sent Governor Jared Polis a new bill to award that state’s electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. Polis announced his intention to sign. The hope is that this will catch on in other states, until they reach enough states to elect a president. Colorado is the 12th state to take this step, but none of these include heavily Republican “red states.” Nor will they—these states have little to gain by doing so.
Large populations of Americans being packed into a few states is not just a political challenge, it is also a demographic reality. Half of all Americans live in just the nine largest states. Why would the 41 smaller states—particularly the “red” (Republican-voting) ones–give up their leverage in the Electoral College? Granted, Colorado also ranks among those 41, but it is a former purple state that has been trending blue for years. By contrast, across the border here in deep-red Kansas, the idea has not even been discussed. Several small-population, red states like Kansas would have to be on board for the math to work, and they stand only to lose clout from the proposal. As it stands, Colorado voted for Clinton in 2016. Nothing would have changed, had these laws been in place there. Furthermore, the workaround may be unconstitutional, because it does not assign the state’s electoral votes to the electors pledged to the candidate who got the most votes in said state. Besides, the idea is a non-starter for the same reason the U.S. Constitution is not going to be amended for this—too many states have too much to lose from doing so. An amendment would not get the required three-quarters of the states to ratify.
Democrats have two better options. The first is to do what I have advocated elsewhere: start winning back voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. Realistically, they may have to recapture these states one by one. Wisconsin is already coming back to blue. Speaking of Go Blue, Michigan also looks very promising. Pennsylvania is winnable, too. Just those three states, plus the ones she did win, would have put Hillary Clinton in the White House with 278 electoral votes (270 are required to win). This is good news for Democrats, since things have not turned around as much in Ohio and Iowa. They also need to hang onto Minnesota. It was the only state to vote for its native, Walter Mondale in 1984, but the North Star nearly slipped away from them last time.
Democrats can also work on a second strategy: flipping several electorally-rich red or purple states which are trending their way. These include North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona. Texas is a more-distant prize—but we could see it flip in a decade or two. As these growing Sunbelt states become more diverse, demographics work to Democrats’ advantage. Particularly under Trump, Republicans have become a party of older, white people—particularly men and married women—and not many others. That does not bode well for the GOP’s future, Trump notwithstanding.
Oh, and what about Florida? Neither party should count on that one. Nearly 20 years later, it is still a hot mess.
As for the “College,” its elimination would not be so great. Doing away with it would mean that smaller states would be virtually ignored. They would probably end any kind of face-to-face contact between candidates, or even their volunteers, on one hand, and voters on the other. The race would be on to collect votes in huge metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas-Ft. Worth, forcing candidates to raise even more money than they do now and fight it out over the airwaves by saturating these massively-expensive media markets. This would also give even more play to the “independent expenditures” left unchecked thanks to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. The case for keeping the Electoral College is not unlike that for retaining the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries—sure they are unrepresentative, but at least they force candidates to go somewhere and talk to voters in person, instead of just a full-time schedule of raising money and reading scripts to television cameras.
Like the House and the Senate, the Electoral College was part of a Constitutional compromise between representation by population, and representation by state. There is little doubt that slavery played a large role here—except for Virginia, Southern states tended to be smaller. They feared being overwhelmed by the growing North, then outvoted on the slavery question. Yet like so many things with truly awful pasts, the Electoral College now sticks around, not because of its history but because of the current set of institutions and interests that keep it in place. In other words, it is a classic lesson in political science. As a Democrat myself, I hope my party is paying attention.
Now, let’s all go watch Schoolhouse Rock.
About the Author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.