Meeting Notes: Reforming the Electoral College

On Saturday, September 12, we held a meeting on the subject of the Electoral College — how it works, its history, and what to do about it. I was honored to be part of a panel that also included Professor Brian Roberts of the University of Texas Dept. of Government, Jan Soifer, chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, Kurt Hildebrand, chair of the Libertarian Party of Texas, and moderator Mike Ignatowski. Below are some of the main ideas that were discussed, based on my recollections and notes from fellow Common Ground board members.

I started out with an extended backgrounder, covering the rules by which the Electoral College operates, its origins in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and a brief history of its development over more than 200 years since then. I reviewed the four elections which are commonly cited as electing a President who did not win the popular vote — 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 — as well as 1960, when the Dixiecrat movement gave 15 electors to Harry F. Byrd, raising an interesting question about Kennedy’s popular vote tally. I concluded by mentioning the four main options for reform:

  1. a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College in favor of direct election by the people
  2. the district method, already used by Maine and Nebraska
  3. the proportional method, in which each state would split its electoral vote in proportion to its popular vote
  4. the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), a way of making the national popular vote decisive without the need for an amendment to the Constitution.

See the handout I prepared for the meeting for more details on this background. Next, we heard opening remarks from Jan, Kurt, and Brian before opening up the discussion to audience questions.

Jan pointed out that, besides giving a relative advantage to small states, the Electoral College also distorts campaigns, focusing their attention on the 9 or so swing states that are not considered safe for either Democrats or Republicans. This alienates voters in safe states like Texas, quite possibly contributing to our low turnout. Like many Democrats, she seemed hopeful that boosting turnout (especially among Latinos) would change Texas from a “red” state to a “purple” one — i.e. a swing state.

Kurt gave a Libertarian perspective on the subject, pointing out that the winner-take-all system used by 48 of the states supports the two party system, and effectively disenfranchises third-party voters — for example, if a party loses a state with 49%, those votes are discarded in the sense that all of the state’s electors go to the winner.

Brian played the role of skeptic in making a few important points. First, he pointed out that we can’t be sure if a losing candidate who won the popular vote would have won if that was our system, because campaigns are organized around the rules as they exist, not as we think they should be. He drew an analogy to a football game, saying that the winner is not the team that moves the ball the most yards, it’s the one that scores the most points. He mentioned Kenneth Arrow, a mathematician who proved the impossibility of a voting system that meets all desirable criteria. And he raised the prospect that a national popular vote would mean an even bigger role for big money in presidential politics.

There were many audience questions, leading to a comparison of presidential and parliamentary systems, a mention of the Article V convention process for amending the Constitution, the urban vs. rural divide, and the relative merits of a Constitution that is difficult to amend. Jan and Kurt responded to a question about how electors are chosen, explaining that it’s essentially a “ceremonial” post for party activists. Many in the room agreed with the notion that “one person, one vote”, i.e. equal voting power for all, is an important value for a democratic republic.

In closing remarks, several panel members expressed their opinion on which reform would be most fruitfully pursued. Jan seemed to like the proportional method, Kurt liked the district method, and I expressed my hopes for the NPVIC.

Mike thanked the audience for a very engaged discussion. He was impressed that Donald Trump’s name had not once come up.

For more information about the Electoral College and the options for reforming it, I shamelessly recommend the paper I published in May for CG4TX.


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