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In this year’s presidential election, Democratic candidate Joe Biden piled up a record popular vote majority of close to five million votes. Yet for days, Americans fretted over a few thousand votes in such “swing states” as Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona. This disparity results from an Electoral College system that fails to reflect the will of the voters.
As the world’s oldest running democracy, America has powerful democratic traditions that will endure through President Donald Trump’s feckless efforts to discredit Joe Biden’s win this year. Yet, we are still saddled with the obsolete eighteenth century institution of the Electoral College. It’s past time for reform.
The reasons behind the establishment of the Electoral College are either irrelevant or discredited today. The framers of America’s Constitution of 1787 loved the common people, but not so much. They failed to enshrine a right to vote in the Constitution and defaulted voter qualifications to the states, who at the time limited voting to men — not women — who owned property or paid taxes. Even subsequent voting rights amendments were phrased negatively in terms of what states could not do: deny the franchise based on race, sex, or age of eighteen years or above. None guaranteed the right to vote to any American.
The framers established the Electoral College as a coterie of wise men who stood as a buffer between the distrusted voters and the election of their president. The system also deferred to the power of the slave states. These states would not agree to electing the president by popular votes since non-voting slaves would count for nothing in the tally. So a compromise was reached whereby slaves would count as 3/5 of a free person for representation in Congress and the Electoral College.
The framers deferred to the smaller states that they needed for ratification of the Constitution. No state would have fewer than three electoral votes, equivalent to their representation in the U.S. Senate and House. At the time, the divergence in the non-slave population held the most and least populous states were about 5 to 1. Today it is 68 to 1.
Thus, small states are disproportionately overrepresented, and large states are underrepresented. Based on their share of the national population, Wyoming with 579,000 persons and Vermont with 624,000, should only be apportioned one Electoral College vote. California with 39,500,000 persons should rack up 64 Electoral College votes, not its current 55.
The changing political demography of the United States exacerbates the distortion of the Electoral College by creating an inherent bias in favor of Republicans. Republicans have won the popular vote only once since 1992, in 2004. Yet they garnered an Electoral College majority in 2000 and 2016, and came close this year.
Republican voters are spread out across the states, whereas Democratic voters are concentrated in fewer populous states. In 2020, Biden piled up a 4.5 million popular vote majority in California alone. He could have won California by 537 votes – the margin by which George W. Bush won Florida and the presidency in 2000 — and still garnered all of its Electoral College votes. The closest red state majority for Trump was 650,000 popular votes in Texas. Presidential candidates bypass the overwhelming Democratic California, while devoting time and resources to small swing states like New Hampshire and Nevada.
The vast majority of Americans recognize that their country is no longer governed by the consent of the governed and favor abolition of the Electoral College. A September 2020 Gallup Poll found that 61 percent of respondents favored a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College, including 89 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of Independents, but only 23 percent of Republicans.
Americans have previously enacted amendments to reform anti-democratic components of our eighteenth century Constitution. The twelfth amendment established the ticket system of separate voting for president and vice president. The seventeenth amendment set the election of U.S. Senators by popular voting in the states, eliminating selection by state legislatures.
Given opposition by Republicans and small states it may seem impossible to muster the two-third votes in Congress and the backing by three-quarters of the states that would be needed for a constitutional amendment on popular voting for the presidency. Yet few would have thought just two decades ago that gay marriage would become a constitutional right. As U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis said, “Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.” I believe that with enough grassroots pressure the will of the majority of Americans will prevail.
Allan J. Lichtman is Distinguished Professor of History at American University and the author of many acclaimed books on U.S. political history, including “The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present,” “White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement,” which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, FDR and the Jews (with Richard Breitman), and “The Case for Impeachment.” He is regularly sought out by the media for his authoritative views on voting and elections.