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All the People Trying to Kill Off the Electoral College

Petitions have been signed, bills have been proposed, activists have shouted from the rooftops—but America is still a long ways away from electing a president by just counting all the votes.

by Meredith Hoffman
Nov 30 2016, 5:00am

One afternoon four years ago, Michael Baer, a massage therapist and retired schoolteacher on California's Central Coast, decided to make a petition to abolish the electoral college. He collected a few hundred signatures from friends on the website MoveOn.org, and then forgot about it. This November, the petition came roaring back to life.

"The morning after the election, I looked and saw it had 25,000 signatures overnight," Baer, 58, told me—and it now has about 581,000. "Now everybody is talking about the electoral college—it's unfair, arcane, and no longer serves a purpose. I'm an independent—I didn't vote for Trump or Clinton—but Clinton won the popular vote so my position is that she should be the president because that is the will of the people."

Baer's petition doesn't have the power to change anything, no matter how many signatures it acquires, but it demonstrates the deep dissatisfaction many Hillary Clinton supporters feel with a system where Donald Trump earned the presidency even though Hillary Clinton won 2 million more ballots. It's the second time in 16 years the loser of the electoral college got more votes, following Al Gore in 2000. While abolishing the centuries-old college is virtually impossible, requiring a constitutional amendment, that hasn't deterred any of the people demanding change, and there are avenues to reform that might actually happen in our lifetimes.

"Anytime there is a difference between the popular vote and the electoral college the electoral college comes under scrutiny," Dan Diorio, a policy specialist in elections for the National Conference on State Legislatures, told me. "This time around, folks are focusing on it a lot."

One of those folks is California senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, who proposed a bill the week after the election to abolish the college, claiming in a press release that "this is the only office in the land where you can get more votes and still lose the presidency," and that the college "is an outdated, undemocratic system that does not reflect our modern society." Just a few days later New York representative Charles Rangel announced a comparable bill in the House.

"I came to Congress on the heels of the civil rights movement, and I know how hard we fought for the sacred right to vote," Rangel said in his announcement. "To protect it, everyone should have access to the vote, and every vote must count. The fact that a candidate can receive more votes than the other but lose the election is fundamentally undemocratic."

No one really thinks these bills will get anywhere. An amendment to the Constitution would require the approval three-quarters of state legislatures, but many states have more power in an electoral college system than they would in a straight popular vote, explained Stanford University history professor Jack Rakove.

Still, Rakove, an expert on the electoral college, told me the legislators' fight was worthwhile because the popular vote is a more just way to elect the president. "There are so many things wrong with the electoral college, and it's hard to say how it was intended—the framers of the Constitution did not have a coherent idea about that," said Rakove. "I'm a big believer in the national popular vote and in the one person one vote idea, that a vote should have the same weight wherever it's cast."

Rakove thinks that if the electoral college were eliminated, candidates would campaign differently, and stop focusing exclusively on the few swing states that can go either red or blue. He figures more citizens would participate in elections if they knew each vote counted, and that the country may even become less divided along strict party lines as a result.

But disintegrating the electoral college isn't the only way to change the system—electors could also distribute their votes differently. Another online petition, even more popular (and more desperate) than Baer's, is asking the electors to vote for Clinton instead of Trump. The Change.org petition, which claims that Trump is "unfit to serve" and that "Secretary Clinton won the popular vote and should be president," has collected more than 4.6 million signatures. One Democratic elector from Colorado, Michael Baca, is also entreating his fellow electors to defect from their pledges and to vote for Clinton. Harvard professor and campaign finance reform advocate Lawrence Lessig concurred in the Washington Post, quoting a line from Alexander Hamilton about how electors were to use "a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice."

Since electors pledge to follow their states' dictates, none of the political experts I spoke with said enough of them would defect for it to matter. But what if the states themselves decided to change those dictates? That's the goal of something called the National Popular Vote Pact, a group that wants states to promise to require their electors to cast their ballots in favor of the winner of the national popular vote. The pact wouldn't take effect unless the states who sign it have 270 electoral votes (the number required to elect a president) between them.

"We have 11 states representing 165 electoral votes who have signed, so we're 61 percent of the way there to enactment," Scott Drexel, a consultant to the initiative, told me. "I'd expect we'd have a bill filed in virtually every legislature by 2017."

The pact would not require a constitutional amendment, but it's still a long way from becoming reality. First, only heavily Democratic states have signed the compact so far, and that's a problem according to Vikram Amar, the dean of the University of Illinois College of Law who has written extensively about the NPV.

"Nothing matters until you get a red state because you can't do it with blue states alone. And swing states won't sign it," said Amar, explaining that swing states don't want to give up their significant political power. "You need a big red state like Texas."

Naturally, a lot of the anger at the electoral politics this month is tied to anti-Trump fervor on the left. But Drexel said the NPV, which launched in 2006, would continue its long-standing strategy of trying to show that the reforming electoral college is a bipartisan issue, not just a way to overturn the results of one election.

"Our challenge over the next year as passions cool is to go back to main argument that regardless of the outcome of this election we shouldn't have a system in which four out of five states are left on the sideline," said Drexel, referring to the lack of attention all non-swing states receive. "The problem isn't the electoral college—it's the winner-take-all system."

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter.

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