Another election year, another discussion about whether the electoral college is a racist artifact of eons past, or a last bastion against populist tyranny. It seems like every time anyone debates the electoral college, the argument is one of these two.
But what if neither—or both—of these arguments are true? Can't we acknowledge that the electoral college is useful in ensuring that less-populated states receive adequate attention while also acknowledging that they may receive too much attention? Of course we can. The electoral college serves its purpose well. But perhaps it serves its purpose a little too well.
Abolition is Foolish
Electoral college was designed to maintain power in hands of white slave owners. “3/5 person” was a way to increase electors in states of slave owners and subsequently their political power to maintain slavery. Time to abolish the electoral college, the last bastion of slavery.
— Elle Ralston (@Elle68401613)
Nov 13, 2020
Anyone who says we need to abolish the electoral college is foolish. Abandoning the concepts of local, retail politics in favor of a war fought on nation-wide airwaves reduces the ability of individual voters to engage with their candidates. Wholesale politics encourages a "one size fits all" mentality that harms communities that don't fit the national mold. Rural communities from Iowa to the Rio Grande Valley risk their voices being silenced.
Discarding the perspectives and the voices of underrepresented communities is dangerous. To make this country truly "Of the People, By the People, For the People," we must ensure that the full breadth of American lived experiences receive fair representation in our government. We need the voices of farmers in our federal government to prevent policies that harm America's ability to produce food for its people. And we need the voices of queer Americans & Americans of color to ensure that our government better represents the diverse voices of our increasingly multicultural society.
But so is Denial
Same guy that wants to abolish the Electoral College is crowing about... the Electoral College.
— BDW (@BryanDeanWright)
Nov 13, 2020
Just as abolitionists are foolishly pessimistic about the electoral college, the denial that change is necessary is foolishly optimistic. There is no escaping the truth that a voter in Pennsylvania or Ohio has far more impact than a voter in California.
The principle of "one person, one vote" is core to our democracy. The electoral college as it stands is far from perfect, as it prioritizes some votes over others at an absurd scale. And those who deny the existence of this problem do so at their own risk. Arguments of "it was intended to work this way" aren't compelling defenses of our current electoral system. If anything, they are harmful to the very concept of trusting the vision of our founders.
Reform is necessary to repair and maintain social trust in our electoral institutions. We cannot sit by and do nothing while Americans grow more and more tired of the electoral college as it currently exists.
So What do We Do?
When tasked with balancing the interests of voters in rural and urban centers, it's easy to think this is a zero-sum game. What can we do to balance the calls for proportional representation and demands to protect the interests of smaller states? How do we ensure that farmers in rural Wyoming have their voices heard while also listening to the views of minorities and progressives in white, conservative Mississippi?
In reality, the solution is a simple one—we divide each state's electoral vote by the popular vote within it—a concept known as popular vote by state or whole number proportional voting.
This system would ensure that voters within each state cast a vote that meaningfully contributes to who becomes the President, regardless of the way their neighbors vote. It would also ensure that proportional representation exists without disregarding the views of voters in small states.
This would result in a much more competitive electoral college, consisting of far more swing states:
The more swing states, the better, if you ask me. By expanding the number of swing states, we expand the number of Americans whose votes are critical to deciding the outcome of an election. And on average, the increase in number of swing states would increase the competitiveness of the race at the national level, driving stronger competition to appeal to all Americans:
Proportional popular vote also breaks down geographic disparities in voting patterns. Coastal states are no longer pitted against their landlocked counterparts. And Midwestern states that often receive outsize attention are no longer the only path to victory.
With a proportional popular vote system, Oklahoma Democrats and Washington Republicans matter again. Every citizen’s vote counts now.
Why it Probably Won't Happen
Despite this idea benefiting most American voters, it will probably never happen. Sorry to be a buzzkill.
Let's think about who benefits from a change to proportional representation. Sure, the American people would enjoy more competitive elections and fairer representation, but which party benefits? After all, the most significant drivers of legislative change these days are which party it helps and which party is in charge.
A shift to proportional representation of electoral votes would—in every single state—benefit the minority party. California Republicans would now have electoral power, as would Idaho Democrats. Do you really think the majority party in each state would be willing to give up their power?
But Why it Should
Despite what partisans may argue, the electoral map changes frequently. In 2012, Pennsylvania State Senator Dominic Pileggi advocated for this type of electoral representation. At the time, it would have helped Republicans who had lost Pennsylvania for the past two decades. But just four years later, such a system would have hurt Republicans who had won the state for the first time in 7 election cycles.
Swing states change far more than we imagine. In 2000, the outcome of the Presidential race relied on states such as Oregon, New Mexico, and New Hampshire. In 2004 and 2008, swing states included Colorado, Virginia, and Indiana. None of these are swing states today. Some of them—looking at you, Virginia—have even flipped from solidly Republican to solidly Democratic in just a few election cycles.
The truth of the matter is that none of us know what electoral shifts are coming in the future. The 2020 election has surprised us with Democrats winning Georgia and Arizona while losing Florida, a one-time "swing state" that has trended more and more Republican over recent years.
Electoral reform requires a look to the future. It's unlikely to happen because the majority party in each state would almost certainly not want to give up power. But they should understand how quickly things change. Those in the majority need to realize just how quickly they can become the minority, and they should act accordingly.
And How it Could
Advocates for a National Popular Vote have done so through the power of inter-state compacts. Reformers within each state have pushed for amendments which award that state's electoral votes to the winner of the nation-wide popular vote. But if a state did so without others following suit, it would lessen its relative power. So what's the fix? Making the change effective only when there are enough votes to decide the president. So unless states representing a total 270 electoral votes sign on, the agreement means nothing. This ensures that no state screws itself over in pursuit of reform while other states reap the benefit.
This agreement would be a perfect solution to electoral college gridlock. Individual states make their change to a proportional voting system dependent on other states doing the same.
Maybe—just maybe—California Democrats would be willing to reduce their electoral influence if it meant Texas and Florida Republicans would have to do the same.
It’s still doubtful, but one can hope.