Twice in the past 20 years a U.S. president has been elected to office despite losing the popular vote. It happened in 2000 with President George W. Bush and again in 2016 with President Trump; both men were made victorious by a little thing called the Electoral College. The fact that lightning struck twice, and in such quick succession, reignited a political fight that's been around as nearly as long as the country has, and one that's centered around a single question: Is it time to abolish the Electoral College? After all, what's the point of an institution that denies the people's will? Rachael Cobb, chair and associate professor of government at Suffolk University in Massachusetts, tells Mic that the result of this lopsided system is "essentially as if ... the political interests of the majority of people are irrelevant."
The Electoral College is comprised of a group of unelected deputies from each state, who cast the final vote for president based on which candidate won their state's electoral votes. It was essentially designed to ensure that political elites, rather than the people, held outsized power in determining the occupant of the Oval Office. Everyday Americans still participate in presidential elections — their individual votes inform how state electors vote — but there isn't a direct line between one's presidential ballot and the president themself.
In most years, this isn't necessarily an issue, given that the national popular vote and the Electoral College count trend in the same direction. The race for the White House this year shed new light on an old problem, though, and with enough fervor that presidential candidates campaigned on the issue. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said that she wanted to be the last president elected by way of the Electoral College. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, called the Electoral College "undemocratic." Even Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said she was open to the idea of abolishing the system. (Trump, perhaps unsurprisingly given the Electoral College is the only reason he became president, has not called for its deletion.)
Why do people want to abolish the Electoral College?
Before getting into the actual solutions around electoral reform, it's important to understand the reasons for abolishing the electoral college in the first place. The most glaring one is its impact on the outcome of presidential elections — namely, that a few hundred people get to determine who the president is, and that their votes don't always align with the American public's.
Another reason for reform is the Electoral College's origins. The Electoral College emerged from the same social, political, and economic context as when American enslavement flourished; Wilfred U. Codrington III, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote for The Atlantic last year about how many of us tend to forget this fact. "Of the considerations that factored into the Framers’ calculus, race and slavery were perhaps the foremost," Codrington wrote. In effect, Codrington explains, the Electoral College was designed and implemented to suppress the political power of Black voters in the South in order to consolidate and maintain power in Washington, D.C.
There are a couple of other important reasons to abolish the Electoral College. First, the system is wildly unpopular: A Gallup poll from September 2020 reports that 61% of the general American public supports nixing the system. Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard University professor of history, said in a conversation with The New York Times's Jamelle Bouie that since 1800, congressional legislators have introduced nearly 1,000 bills or amendments seeking to remake the cumbersome system. Republicans, Democrats, and independents have historically been in favor of using a national popular vote to elect a president — perhaps one of the only issues that the different ideological wings can agree on. (After the 2016 election, when the Electoral College benefited their candidate, Republican support for the popular vote plummeted.)
The best option: A constitutional amendment
The first way that we could get ourselves a new electoral system is by adding a constitutional amendment. As has been done 27 other times, the federal government could add language to the Constitution that mandates that a national popular vote determine the president. However, getting the two-thirds majority of representatives in both the House and the Senate required to add an amendment is not likely to happen.
Still, congressional action might be more feasible than the alternative: getting two-thirds of state legislatures to pass an amendment. And here's why: The Electoral College is determined by a state's congressional delegation. Cobb says that "the United States Senate is the most malapportioned legislature in the entire world," pointing to how less populated states, like Wyoming with its 578,759 residents, have the same amount of political sway in the Senate as California and its nearly 40 million residents. These problems are magnified when it comes to voting for the president in that political influence is distributed inequitably among the states.
"Politics is about power, but it's also about the distribution of goods."
Cobb explains that the outsized Senate and therefore electoral power afforded to less densely populated states means that there's very little incentive to give up or redistribute power back to the American public. "Politics is about power, but it's also about the distribution of goods," Cobb tells Mic, emphasizing that abolishing the Electoral College would force the federal government to operate differently and perhaps distribute resources to states that currently hold less political power. "States that have the high populations but may just not be up for grabs — in any given presidential election — are essentially political losers when it comes to the distribution of resources and goods," Cobb says.
Another idea: The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) is more of a reform idea than an all-out abolition of the system. As Mic reported ahead of this year's election, the NPVIC is "a formal agreement between states to honor the will of the people while maintaining the electoral system." This fall, Colorado became the 16th state to sign onto the compact, pledging its nine electoral votes to the national popular vote winner in the case of an Electoral College upset — but this too would only take affect after enough states sign on.
Popularity for the NPVIC is growing, though. As Mic reported in 2018, at least 16 other states considered the cCompact in the 2017-2018 state legislative session. Still, experts like Cobb question the efficacy of its methodology. "If you really ask me, 'Do I think it's going to work?' I don't think so," Cobb tells Mic. "At the same time, I think efforts like this are useful because they educate people about the system and can be the forerunners to other kinds of change."
Legal experts challenge the NPVIC based on the idea that the method wouldn't escape a court battle unscathed. Still, whether or not the NPVIC may be an effective solution, it seems to be the one with the most momentum.
Last chance: A creative workaround
Cobb tells Mic that in lieu of a constitutional amendment establishing a popular vote or the unlikely success of the NPVIC, Congress can consider a couple of alternatives. She floats the idea that a constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court decision could play a key role in rewiring election processes. She also believes that a universal voting rights bill would be more likely to pass than full-on electoral college reform.