Following the 2016 presidential election in which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes, but still lost the presidency to Donald Trump, progressives revivified the movement to dismantle the Electoral College.
As the 2020 election approaches, the Electoral College has come under more direct fire, with three of the four leading Democratic candidates for president arguing for its abolition.
On Friday, I had the opportunity to speak with author Tara Ross, who has penned multiple books on the Electoral College, all of which can be found on Amazon.
During part one of this two-part interview, Ross discusses why the Electoral College is important, and why a popular vote would be worse for the United States. Additionally, I ask Ross about the primary challenges most often posed by opponents of the Electoral College.
DW: Is the Electoral College the best system for a republic such as ours?
ROSS: Absolutely. The Founders created the Electoral College because they thought a nation of 13 states was huge and diverse and that something special was needed. If anything, I would say we need the Electoral College even more now then we did back then. They had only 13 states, but we have 50. We have become more diverse. We have more concerns, more subcultures, more interests that need to be represented, and the President of the United States is the only elected official in this whole country who is expected to represent all of us. It’s a unique position and it deserves a unique process.
DW: So why would a direct popular vote system be a worse way to elect a president?
ROSS: There are many reasons why it would be worse. First, it would get rid of the coalition-building incentives that are in our system now. There’d be no reason for candidates to learn or care about the concerns of the less densely populated areas of our country. As a strategic matter, it would be easier to go to the big cities or the big states, and rack up as many friendly votes as they can, as fast as they can, because that’s just easy.
If we were to eliminate the Electoral College, the second thing we’d notice is how much easier it would be to steal elections. As it stands now, you have to know exactly where to steal an election – which state is close, which state is going to make a difference – then you need to steal votes in that one particular spot so you can swing the national outcome. Even that doesn’t work well, by the way, unless the overall national election is close enough that one or two states are going to swing the whole thing. That doesn’t usually happen.
If you have a national popular vote, by contrast, any stolen vote in any precinct in the country will make a difference. Votes can be stolen in the bluest blue California precinct or the reddest red Texas one, and you could affect the entire national outcome. A national popular vote system requires us to be on defense in every single precinct of the country at all times, and that’s impossible. We simply don’t have the resources for that.
A third thing that people don’t really think about when they think about a switch to a national popular vote is that it would undermine the two party system. Some people might think, “That sounds great! We’re tired of being stuck with two choices.” But you have to also think about the other ramifications of that: You’d allow extremist third parties to come in and have an influence on the election.
Look at the French election system. It’s not unusual to have ten or twelve candidates vying to get into a runoff. Two candidates finally make it with something like 18% or 19% of the vote. More extremist types of candidates often end up in the runoff in the French system. They have no incentive to build coalitions and to come together, and that’s the kind of world that we would be looking at if we got rid of the Electoral College.
DW: In systems like in France (and elsewhere), don’t the more extremist candidates also have to build coalitions following their elections?
ROSS: Well, in general, yes, there are other coalition-building devices that other countries have, which interestingly, nobody stops to think about. It’s kind of funny. You could be elected prime minister in some countries without a majority of the popular vote behind you and nobody thinks twice about it. They talk about how we’re going to build coalitions in the parliament to come up with a vote for prime minister. It looks different here, but the important thing is that we have coalition-building incentives in our process.
DW: There’s a lot of interest around proportionality, and there are only two states that award their electors more proportionally. Would it be better for every state to dole out their electoral votes by district like Maine and Nebraska do?
ROSS: To be clear, people talk about proportionality and there’s a distinction between a proportional allocation and a congressional district allocation. Maine and Nebraska rely upon a congressional district allocation. In that system, the winner of each congressional district gets one elector, then there are two “at large” electors awarded to the winner of the state’s popular vote.
A proportional allocation is slightly different. It says that, if a candidate attains 20% of the vote, we’re going to give 20% of the electors to that candidate. But it doesn’t always work out so well because an elector is a real person. You can’t award a fraction of a person. You have to figure out how to round and where to draw the line. People don’t always stop to think about one side effect of a proportional allocation: You’re going to end up with a lot of fights, with candidates looking around the country to say to themselves, “If I get one hundred more votes in that state, then they’re going to have to round up instead of down, and I’m going to get an extra elector.”
There’s the potential to have a legal fight in every single state and D.C. because you’ll have 51 electors up for grabs, at a minimum, if everybody were relying upon a proportional allocation. Allocation of electors by congressional district at least has the benefit of avoiding this problem of where to draw the line and whether to round up or down. Having said that, the other thing people don’t remember about the congressional district system is that it could make the gerrymandering fights a lot worse because those congressional boundaries do move once every ten years, and then you’re going to have a lot more at stake in how those lines are drawn. Winner-take-all at least has the benefit of relying upon permanent state boundaries that cannot be changed by an incumbent class of elected officials.
DW: Proponents of the popular vote say that an individual’s vote in Wyoming shouldn’t have more weight than someone’s in California. They would say for example, “Each delegate in California represents approximately 361,800 eligible voters while each delegate in Wyoming represents approximately 95,000 voters, giving Wyoming a disproportionate voting power.” What would you say to that?
ROSS: Well, a couple of things. One is, by that logic, we should also get rid of the Senate. That’s the next logical step. Our system takes into consideration both the elements of one state-one vote, and one person-one vote. That was the compromise, the fundamental compromise that was made at the Constitutional Convention, and it was made so that the small States would not be left out of the process entirely.
The other thing that I would offer as reminder is that, what you said is kind of true, but also kind of not true, and the reason is because there is no national election in this country. There is no real national tally. That is an informal number that is generated by the press, or whomever, because we like to hear it. What really happens is we conduct 51 purely democratic elections in this country; there are 51 separate elections that are held within each state, plus D.C. We vote for electors, just like we would vote for our state governor or any other statewide office. This is a statewide election in which each person in that state is treated equally with every other person in that state, and they cast their ballots to decide who the electors will be who will represent that state. It is a purely democratic, one person-one vote election, but it’s conducted at the state level rather than the national level.
DW: Another charge leveled at the Electoral College is that swing states decide the president. That’s unfair to states that are reliably red or reliably blue – like Minnesota, which aside from 1972 has been blue in every presidential election, and inversely, Arizona, which, aside from 1996, has been red in every presidential election, for the last 59 years.
ROSS: I’m not one who believes that only swing states matter. I would say swing states simply made up their minds later in the process than a safe state did. There is no candidate that can get to 270 electors without some combination of safe and swing states on board voting for that candidate. The safe state is most likely safe because they’re pretty happy with the four years of governance that preceded the election, or, at least, with what their own party was doing before the election.
When the state starts to feel unhappy, then they change – there is simply no such thing as a state that is permanently safe. Hillary Clinton learned that the hard way in 2016 when a bunch of states that she thought would vote for her didn’t vote for her. There are other examples such as West Virginia voting for George W. Bush in 2000. People don’t really think about that because we were so focused on Florida that year, but George W. Bush would not have won the election but for the fact that West Virginia, a safe, small, blue state flipped and changed its mind. It had been voting blue for decades and then it decided to vote red. West Virginia flipped because it felt taken for granted by the Democratic Party.
There’s no such thing as a permanently safe or swing state. This is always fluctuating, always changing. It can never be taken for granted.
DW: Hans Von Spakovsky said that the Electoral College “prevents candidates from winning an election by focusing only on high population, urban centers, ignoring smaller states in the more rural areas of the country.” But isn’t it the case now that small states are ignored in favor of larger and swing states?
ROSS: No, I don’t agree with that. I see it as a really fine balance. There are many ways in which small states matter in our system. Look at states like New Hampshire or Iowa, which matter a lot at primary time. People are looking to see what they’re going to do. You can look at another example like Utah, with its six electoral votes, which threatened to flip in the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign. Utah was threatening to vote third party, so the Trump campaign sent Mike Pence over there to shore up those votes. I already mentioned West Virginia. George Bush spent extra time campaigning there in 2000, seeing an opportunity to flip a safe, small blue state. Democrats were taking West Virginia for granted, but Bush did not. That small state flipped and gave Bush the victory.
If you look at the history of what’s going on and how the campaigns approach these small states, there’s no state that doesn’t matter, especially in a close election year. Every state matters.
DW: Do you think the Electoral College battle has become such a big deal because the executive has siphoned so much power away from the legislative branch and the legislative branch has ceded so much power to the executive, so people have a much more distorted view of what the president is capable of?
ROSS: Absolutely. The president appoints judges; the president issues executive orders. We come to expect more and more and more from the president sometimes – whether it’s constitutional or not – but when you’ve got so much power centralized in the hands of one person, then the identity of that person becomes more important, yet it was never intended to be that way. It was intended to be a much more decentralized kind of a process overall. It’s unsurprising that we are so angry at each other when we are expecting so many one-size-fits-all solutions out of one elected person. It’s not what our system was created to be, and we would be better served to return to our roots rather than to move even further away from what the Founders planned.
DW: Why has the idea of a popular vote become so favored among the American people to the point that it’s being pushed by major candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who has said that she’ll be the last president elected with the Electoral College?
ROSS: In my view, it’s simple lack of understanding and simple lack of education. Our schools stopped teaching all this stuff a few decades ago, so now we have younger generations of adults who have never learned the foundations of our government.
Most people, if you ask them, will say, “Well, the Electoral College was created because travel was tough and communication was hard,” and they’ll add that travel and communications have improved, so we don’t need the Electoral College anymore. Of course, that’s not why the Electoral College was created. The Electoral College was created because the Founders knew that people are imperfect; they knew that power corrupts; they knew that if you concentrate too much power in the hands of a few people, the whole country will pay for that. They wanted checks and balances, and they wanted devices in their new Constitution to make it harder for power to be abused.
They didn’t trust anybody. They didn’t trust the national government; they didn’t trust the states; they didn’t trust the people; they didn’t trust the government officials. They literally trusted nobody. They knew that everyone is imperfect and anyone can be corrupted by power. So we need to set ambition against ambition, and we need to have so many checks and balances in the system that it will protect our liberty in the end. The Electoral College is just one of these devices intended to ensure that a tyrannical majority or a bare majority can’t run over everybody else.
As I see it, when the Electoral College is properly understood and people know why these different devices are in the Constitution, it’s much easier to support them. But when you have a complete lack of education on the subject, then it’s very easy to fall for a soundbite and to get rid of things that turn out to be really important.
In part two of this interview, which will be released on Sunday, Ross continues to discuss the challenges to the Electoral College posed by opponents, the potentially unconstitutional binding of electors, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, as well as any potential alterations to the way we elect the president.