the US in a swirling map
election 2020

Abolishing the Electoral College May Not Save Us

Progressives want the popular vote to be the only vote that matters. But if their dream comes true, will they get what they hope for?
SM
Brooklyn, US
CV
illustrated by Cathryn Virginia
October 26, 2020, 11:00am

It’s June of 2031, and Heather Adams-Fernandez is preparing to announce her candidacy for the Republican nomination for President. At her campaign headquarters, a graphic of the U.S. hangs on the wall, but the states aren’t colored in red, blue, or purple. A decade earlier, the country transitioned to a national popular vote to elect the president, so the map now shows vote totals weighted by population density and margin of victory. It’s a distorted, chaotic mix of colors and shapes that, to a previous generation, is barely recognizable as the United States, but it’s the new political reality.

Advertisement

However, before Adams-Fernandez can draft her domestic policy, start to vet potential vice presidents, or plan her campaign tour stops, she and her staff must formulate a critical part of her campaign strategy: how to turn out the vote.

The basis for how we elect the President and Vice President of our country, the Electoral College awards delegates by almost each state on a winner-take-all system. But after Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by almost three million votes while losing in the College, critics had yet another example of how fundamentally undemocratic it is. For the second time since 2000, the president was chosen not just by a minority of voters, but also by a system that was created as a compromise with slave-owning Southern states and which still dilutes the influence of minority voters.

So what should be done? Abolishing the Electoral College outright would require a constitutional amendment, an unlikely political feat in the current environment, but there is another way. If states representing a majority of the Electoral College votes sign onto The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and agree to allocate their votes to whoever wins the national popular vote, not just their state, the College would essentially be nullified. As of July 2020, jurisdictions representing 196 electoral votes have signed on, 74 below the needed threshold.

This switch to a national popular vote would fundamentally transform our politics, and for critics of the Electoral College, it would be for the better: increased turnout, a structural advantage for progressives, and fairer, more equitable election laws. But as is often the case in politics, an uncertain future reality may be more complicated than it appears.

New Rules, Same Apathy: Turnout might stay the same

It seems obvious that a national popular vote would increase voter turnout. After all, think of the millions of voters who stay home because their vote is wasted under the states’ winner-take-all systems: the Republicans in blue states, like California and Massachusetts, and the Democrats in red states, like Wyoming and West Virginia.

But voters aren’t necessarily motivated by how close the race is in their state, said Bernard Fraga, a political scientist at Emory College who wrote a book on the turnout gap between white voters and voters of color. “It would make a lot of sense, in theory, that turnout would increase in more competitive contexts, but the data suggests that in recent elections, the effect is small and difficult to measure.”

Advertisement

If turnout were dependent on how competitive a state was, you’d expect it to be highest in the swing states. In 2016, that was the case for Minnesota and New Hampshire—number one and two for turnout—and for Wisconsin, number five. But after that, the trend falls off. Massachusetts and Maryland, with some of the largest margins for Hillary Clinton, had higher turnouts than Virginia, Michigan, and North Carolina. After that, Pennsylvania was 20th, Ohio was 21st, and Nevada was 38th.

In 2016, the relationship was especially weak in Florida, the swing state with the most Electoral College votes, more than New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nevada combined. In addition to voting for president, the Sunshine State also had competitive races for Senate and Governor and spent more money on political advertising than any other state—$133 million for its 14.6 million eligible voters. That year, it ranked 14th in turnout.

Even Minnesotans, the gold-standard for turnout, aren’t necessarily motivated by the prospect of razor-thin margins. In the past few presidential election cycles, as the state has become more competitive, turnout has dropped. And if you look at where each vote matters most—defined as the state where an individual voter has the greatest chance of determining an Electoral College vote—then turnout should be highest in Wyoming. It was 30th.

So what does predict turnout? There’s a variety of useful metrics, including age, income, race, previous voting behavior, and what Professor Fraga calls “political socialization”—living in a microculture where others vote and prioritize civic engagement. Turnout could also be affected by the barriers to casting a ballot, which includes both the laws—ID requirements, voter roll purges, requiring an excuse to vote by mail—and the issue of accessibility, like the 1,600-plus poll sites that have been closed since the Supreme Court neutered the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

With 100 million people habitually not voting, the United States has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the democratic world, and it’s comforting to believe that our voters stay home because of an abstract calculus about whether their vote matters under the Electoral College (ignoring the fact that we vote for more than just president every four years).

Advertisement

However, the reality is that they may not have the time, not know when or how to vote, not feel informed enough, not trust that their vote will be counted, or may just believe that politicians are full of shit and it doesn’t matter either way. Regardless, low turnout won’t be solved by abolishing the Electoral College.

Class Is the New Fault-line: The Republican party would likely change their platform to court new demographics

It’s April of 2032. Having clinched the Republican nomination and formulated her get-out-the-vote plan, Adams-Fernandez refines her policy platform, which is tailored to the urban and suburban voters who compose her base. Because they largely agree on social issues, she doesn’t mention reproductive justice or trans inclusion in high school sports. Instead, she focuses on a formerly obscure issue that has fired up her rallies: the state and local income tax deduction. Based largely on this issue, she’s polling even with her Democratic opponent.

The Electoral College currently benefits Republicans, and though some conservatives support its abolition, it’s mostly progressives leading the charge (just look at a map of which states have signed onto the The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact). However, if we switched to a national popular vote, the left may be unpleasantly surprised by the results.

“The Republican Party is able to survive as a minority party,” said Jonathan Rodden, a political scientist at Stanford who wrote a book about the geographic distribution of political preferences. “It consistently receives fewer votes in presidential and Senate elections, but they can win those elections. So, the incentives for them are to structure their appeals in the way that they have. If the incentives change, parties need to adapt in order to win.”

Advertisement

In other words, switching to a national popular vote would change the incentives—but not necessarily in a way that would make our politics more progressive. Instead, Republicans might use fiscal issues to lure ostensibly liberal voters away from the Democratic Party. For example, Professor Rodden points to the shortage of affordable housing in California, where the median price for a home is $600,000, twice the national average, and which has four of the country’s five most expensive residential markets—Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Orange County and San Diego.

“There are a lot of people who express progressive positions on a lot of things,”  Rodden said, “but they’re very opposed to the construction of new housing that would make the place more affordable. They want to protect their property values.”

Similarly, Republicans could tempt progressive voters in cities and suburbs with changes to the tax code. Professor Rodden brings up two examples: the mortgage interest deduction, a $90 billion subsidy that disproportionately benefits the wealthy, incentivizes them to buy larger homes, and exacerbates the housing crisis; and the state and local tax deduction, which is another backdoor tax break for the middle-class and rich, especially those in places with a high cost of living.

In 2017, roughly 30 percent of taxpayers took advantage of the state and local tax deduction, and 32 million households claimed the mortgage interest deduction, a large pool of voters in the income brackets most likely to vote. However, that year Republicans enacted legislation that limited both. This, Professor Roden said, accounts for Democrats’ recent success in high-income suburban districts in New Jersey and Southern California.

Advertisement

Under a national popular vote, Republicans could pivot and appeal to these voters—as could the Democrats. As Professor Rodden said, “Sometimes, the party platform is what the wealthy donors say it should be.”

A Nationwide Effort to Suppress: The parties behind voter restrictions will find new methods to discourage the voters who don’t support them

It’s October of 2032. Still running in a dead heat against her opponent, Adams-Fernandez amasses an army of poll watchers and election lawyers prepared to contest certain ballots, challenge the results, and initiate a recount if necessary. Where the campaign used to focus on a few counties in Florida or Pennsylvania, they now fan out in cities and suburbs across the United States to enforce the voting restrictions that their party has passed over the preceding decade.

The reason that the election administrator’s prayer is “Lord, let this election not be close” is that making democracy work is difficult. Boards of election are often under-resourced and under-staffed, and even when there isn’t a pandemic, recruiting, training, and adequately paying poll workers is a constant concern. When a race isn’t close, relatively minor mistakes go unnoticed, but they could easily be further weaponized to tilt the election in favor of one party.

For example, Michigan law prohibits a precinct from recounting any votes if there’s an unexplained discrepancy between the number of ballots that were tabulated by the scanner and the number of voters recorded in the poll books. During the statewide recount in 2016, this provision reportedly excluded 60 percent of the precincts in Detroit from being recounted, letting stand the original results. This isn’t surprising; urban centers serve more voters, so errors are more likely. 

While this law wasn’t originally intended to exclude urban voters, it serves as a model for how states, which write most of their own voting laws, can use seemingly neutral rules to target certain groups, especially those that live in areas that are heavily minority, where voting wait times are already longer and absentee ballots are more often rejected.

Advertisement

And for the same reason that the Electoral College benefits Republicans, it also favors them in state legislatures, which may be fully controlled by the GOP even in states with large numbers of Democrats. That’s the case in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. In Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Georgia, and Texas, the governors are also Republican.

Of course, we could always improve our election administration. Instead of conducting recounts, we could rely on risk-limiting audits. Instead of prohibiting counties from tabulating absentees until Election Day, we could allow for pre-processing. Instead of gutting the Voting Rights Act, we could pass a new one.

But voting laws in this country often reflect partisan concerns, not practical ones, and whether they’re supported by facts or written in bad-faith is irrelevant. Widespread voter fraud is a myth, yet, even during a pandemic, it props up voter ID laws, prohibitions on ballot collection, and even restrictions on how many absentee drop boxes a county can have.

Plus, well-intentioned laws can have unforeseen consequences. After the 2000 election fiasco, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which mandated that if someone is told that she can’t vote at a poll site, she can request a provisional ballot, the eligibility of which is later determined. This was a landmark law that’s enfranchised millions of people—but has also been exploited by states like Georgia, which use what should be a failsafe to essentially force citizens to vote twice.

These aren’t reasons to keep the Electoral College. It must go, but changing something as important as the rules for electing the president will have profound and unintended consequences. In 2013, Senate Democrats eliminated the 60-vote threshold for executive appointments and federal judges, paving the way for Trump to stack the judiciary, which is now voting to uphold restrictions on voting.

When it comes to reform, we have to temper our expectations. Abolishing the Electoral College has become a vessel for our fantasies and misconceptions about politics, election laws, and voter behavior. If we focus only on sexy, structural change, and ignore the boring minutia of tax deductions and recount laws, we’re bound to be disappointed by the results.

Follow Spenser Mestel on Twitter.