The Electoral College Debate

In order to understand much of politics on the left these days, one must appreciate that much of the left views the election of Donald Trump as an opportunity, not (just) a travesty. If Donald Trump is possible, what else might be possible in our politics? Rationality, convention and respectability are not the mooring forces we thought they were. The “conservative” party in this country discarded tradition and propriety for power. What set of political circumstances might allow power to be won and used differently, this time by the left?

The Overton Window used to be discussed primarily on the political right. It was Glenn Beck’s preferred way to motivate conservatives who felt (and feel) like it’s not political power they lost so much as voters’ imaginations had moved beyond the political and moral narratives conservatives could once sell to voters. Now, the Overton Window is frequently discussed in some streams of the political left. What is the most expectations-shattering thing we can argue with a straight face, they ask. Make that argument, enforce it as the new standard, and two things will happen: 1) the old left flank is now the new compromise position 2) voters on the left will never be satisfied, and will be less likely to hold you accountable since the pure position was never enacted.

In 2016, the Democratic nominee believed Republicans’ nomination of Donald Trump, which was itself norm-breaking, provided an opportunity to move to the left and still win the presidency. The Democratic Party is now basically split between those who believe the mistake was moving left and neglecting to make a case to broad swaths of voters, and those who believe that any system that could elect Trump, whatever the state of the Democrats, is fundamentally problematic and must be changed. This largely mirrors ideological differences, but it also reflects differing views of how political change should happen in this country. There are some political moderates with less of a commitment to existing political structures, and some political progressives who believe those existing political structures are important even if they forestall desired progress.

It is in this environment of profound disruption politically and culturally that we see a range of leftist proposals to change how government functions. There are various proposals to pack the Supreme Court. One of the most significant rifts between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to emerge so far is on whether to get rid of the filibuster in the Senate. And there are growing calls to scrap the Electoral College and elect our president by popular vote.

There are principled arguments for electing a president by popular vote, and real grievances that have led to this moment. EJ Dionne and Jamelle Bouie have recently written to make the case. The central critique is simple and obvious enough: the Electoral College makes it possible that the candidate who receives the most votes will not become president. This outcome is not only undemocratic, as Bouie argued, but can contribute to “anger, rancor and mistrust.” Bouie also makes a convincing argument that many of the arguments in favor of the Electoral College “don’t follow from the facts and are rooted more in folk civics than in how the system plays out in reality.” Dionne, meanwhile, focuses on the Electoral College’s bias toward white voters. I am sensitive to all of these arguments, particularly Bouie’s argument that it undermines civic trust to have multiple elections in which the popular vote winner loses.

The left’s arguments for the popular vote appear to be quite straightforward: it’s democratic. Every vote would count the same. The will of the majority would rule.

Yet, what is unavoidable is that these arguments simply would not be made by those who are currently arguing for such a change, if they believed the Electoral College favored their politics. It is, of course, no coincidence that virtually everyone who is making public arguments right now in favor of scrapping the Electoral College are politically progressive, anti-Republican and anti-Trump. This observation applies to political party: it was Nate Cohn’s article in The New York Times along with this recent think tank report that warned that the Electoral College might enable Trump to win re-election in 2020, and favor Republicans in future elections. But I want to suggest here that it is not simply, or even primarily, partisanship that is motivating calls for scrapping the Electoral College. Instead, it is an opposition to moderation. The principal opposition to the Electoral College lies not so much in its influence on which party is elected to the presidency, but on the kind of (Democratic) party that can be elected to the White House.

I don’t think anyone really knows what the consequences would be of electing our president by a national popular vote, but it is no surprise that these calls coincide with the rise of the “base turnout” model of presidential campaigning. The Electoral College focuses the general election campaign not on states with large rural or urban populations, not on states that are pro-labor or pro-business, pro-life or pro-choice, etc. Instead, the Electoral College focuses the presidential general election on states that are not completely in the bag for either party. This is the inherent bias of the Electoral College. The Electoral College is a structural aspect of how we elect presidents that forces our politicians to at least consider the views of voters who don’t line up with either party platform. If we were to move to a popular vote, that pull toward the center, whatever that might be at the time, would not exist. We would have presidential primary elections where party activists are able to pull candidates toward the extremes—much as we have now except party moderates will no longer be able to appeal to electability, and state and region-based candidacies will lose almost all relevancy—followed by a general election in which voters who are unhappy with the primary process have less leverage to rein in the candidates.

The Electoral College certainly leads some voters to be overlooked, but a move to popular vote will not necessarily mean that every voter is heard equally. Yes, it undermines civic trust and social cohesion for a president to be elected while losing the popular vote, but electing by popular vote would not solve that problem either. In fact, by making presidential elections (and, therefore, governing) more zero-sum—as campaigns would be less focused on compromise and more focused on motivating your party’s base and making other voters feel like they have nowhere else to go—you raise the likelihood of civic despair and unrest in the wake of an election. We’ve talked endlessly about the 90,000 votes (or so) that decided the 2016 election, but those votes were spread over three states and the election result reflected the results of 50 elections, and the individual judgments of about a dozen swing states that were subject to intense campaigning for months. Would a popular vote victory of 10,000 people in a country of 327 million people—particularly if they had to choose between two parties that only came close to reflecting the actual point of view of 20-40% of the electorate—really represent a closer reflection of the will of the people than, for instance, the election of 2000 (leaving aside Florida and SCOTUS for the moment) when George W. Bush lost the popular vote by about 550,000 votes (out of over 100 million…less than a percentage point) and won thirty states? Is the fact that Brexit was decided by a popular vote a great consolation to Remainers in the UK? Was that vote a clean and undisputed reflection of the will of the people? No, for left-leaning folks on both side of the Atlantic, that vote is portrayed as the danger of leaving such a significant national decision to the whims of an easily manipulated mob motivated by populist appeals.

It was not too long ago that Democrats were talking about the “blue wall,” and the political power that was inevitably heading their way, notwithstanding the Electoral College, because of demographic changes. Such arguments, made in the first decade of this century, contributed to an arrogant, limiting and self-destructive shift in the Democratic Party. Moderation itself is not necessarily a virtue, but it is only viewed as anathema by those completely convinced of the virtue of their own personal brand of politics. The Electoral College has not changed structurally in over two centuries. It has not inherently favored either political party over the course of that time. What it does do is focus our political debate, and force both parties to respond. Election by popular vote in a nation of 327 million people will make presidential politics, perhaps counter-intuitively, less responsive to the people.

Still, what do we do with the legitimate arguments against the Electoral College? One response would be that any system will be imperfect, this is the system we have, and to change that system to suit present, new and probably fleeting political desires and needs will do more to promote “anger, rancor and mistrust” than a candidate losing an election based on basically the same rules that have governed every presidential election over the last 200 years. If Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) don’t like it, then change to be the kind of party that can win both the popular vote and the Electoral College. If the choice is between keeping the Electoral College and just changing to a popular vote, I tend to favor the former.

And yet, these are not our only options. I would be open to, and think we need, sweeping election reform that is responsive to the increasing sophistication of political technology, the creeping saturation of politics into all of life and all of culture, the dominant roles money and advocacy groups have in presidential politics, and record-high levels of distrust of government and partisan animosity. The problem with the conversation about the Electoral College (and other electoral reforms like redistricting) is that while many of the arguments to scrap it are sound, the will to move to popular vote comes from partisan and ideological motives. But imagine if a people’s agenda to reclaim and properly restrain our politics moved forward that paired a move to electing our president by popular vote with reforms like ranked-choice voting, lowering the bar for entry for third-parties, significant campaign finance reform and responsible controls on political communications.

The discontent many people feel with our politics is actually not grounded in any specific political agenda, but with a justified estrangement from the system itself. Yet, this genuine feeling is too often met with proposals that gesture toward that sense of estrangement, but are motivated by the pursuit of power.

Want to reform how we elect our president? Think bigger than just getting rid of the Electoral College.