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An Idea for Electoral College Reform That Both Parties Might Actually Like

7 88 599
12.01.2019

Americans have heard for years that the Electoral College is broken—just look at the presidential elections of 2000 and 2016, when the winner earned fewer votes nationally than the loser. We have also heard that, despite its flaws, this system won’t change anytime soon. Republicans generally oppose a national popular vote, which would both undermine them electorally and violate the Founding Fathers’ desire for the presidency to reflect America’s federalist structure as a union of separate states.

But here is an argument for Electoral College reform that might actually appeal to conservatives: Simply put, the way we currently elect presidents would horrify the early American authors of the U.S. electoral system, as defined in the 12th Amendment.

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The drafters of that amendment, above all, wanted presidents to be elected according to the principle of majority rule. By the early 1800s, America had experimented four times with presidential elections, and had seen how the Founders’ original electoral system gave undue power to the minority party. In response, members of Congress devised a system—still federalist in nature—in which the winner of an Electoral College majority was supposed to have won majority support in the states.

The problem? In the decades since, states have abandoned their commitment to majority rule. Candidates today can win all of a state’s Electoral College votes with simply a plurality of votes in that state—and that state, either alone or along with others where the same thing happens, can swing entire elections. In 2016, Donald Trump won all the electoral votes, totaling 101, in six states where he received less than 50 percent of the popular vote: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (Hillary Clinton won seven states this way.) Those 101 votes were one-third of the 304 Trump won overall—they were essential to his reaching an Electoral College majority of 270 and becoming president.

How did America’s presidential elections go so far astray from the goals of the 12th Amendment? And can we go back?

Understanding this deviation requires first going back to the origins of our current Electoral College system and examining what it was designed to accomplish. This history can also offer models for how states might change their rules in order to restore America’s commitment to majority rule.

Principled constitutional originalists should be leading the call for this kind of reform—a reform that requires not a constitutional amendment but only changes in state law. In reality, the current system works to the detriment of both Republicans and Democrats. A candidate from either party easily could prevail again in a way that is inconsistent with the original intent of the Electoral College’s authors—and as soon as 2020.

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The Electoral College system governing us today, as delineated in the 12th Amendment, is primarily the result of congressional deliberations in 1803, which revised the original system adopted at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. To the Founders, the goal of the first electoral system was to elect presidents who were consensus choices, rising above the fray of squabbling political factions. Each elector was required to cast two votes for president, each for a different candidate and the two candidates coming from different states. The assumption was that nationally acceptable second-choice candidates often would prevail over disparate “favorite son” candidates from each state.

This worked with George Washington in 1789 and 1792. But in the next two elections, after Washington retired, head-to-head competition developed between two opposing political parties—the Federalists, led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, and the Jeffersonians, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It soon became clear that two-party politics was incompatible with the two-presidential-votes-per-elector rule.

In the election of 1800, Jefferson outpaced Adams in the Electoral College tally—73 to 65—but tied his running mate, Aaron Burr, since the Jeffersonian electors each cast their two votes for their party’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The Constitution’s mechanism for breaking this tie was a vote in the outgoing House of Representatives (by a special procedure in which each state’s delegation had one vote), which meant that the party controlling the outcome in the House (the Federalists) was opposed to the party whose candidates had tied for the presidency (the Jeffersonians). Not only had the Electoral College not yielded a clear winner, but tie-breaking process made matters tenser; the governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania were even prepared to use their state militias to defend Jefferson’s claim to the presidency.

Eventually, the Federalists backed down, in large part because Hamilton convinced his fellow partisans that, while Jefferson’s principles were........

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