A Modest Proposal To Carve The Whole Thing Up

Keep The Electoral College As Is, But Not Really

My state (Colorado) recently joined 11 others ready to commit their Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who gets the biggest national popular vote.

It is a capital idea, and a way to help us avoid inaugurating candidates who don’t have most Americans’ support but win the Electoral College.

Popular vote losers have ascended to the presidency five out of 45 elections: John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Several happened to go on to prodigiously unpopular and, twice, disastrous presidencies. Most recently, of course, President Trump fell three million votes short of his opponent, but won the most Electoral College votes by an estimated total of 70,000 votes spread across three key states.

Yet, to my mind, the way Electoral College votes are split up is hardly the system’s most urgent problem. Voter suppression and voter apathy played outsized roles in the latest failure of election results to match overall voter preference. And they promise to do it every election from here on out.

So if we’re going to go to the trouble of tinkering with the Electoral College, let’s see if it can also help make voter suppression a negative for both parties.

The sneakiest states. Barring certain voters is hardly an isolated problem, and its toll is hardly a secret. Twenty-five states have put relatively new obstacles in the way of certain voters’ paths. The non-partisan National Conference on State Legislatures lists Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin as having the strictest new rules. They require a current identification photo to vote. Your ID, moreover, must exactly match the information about you in the state’s voter registration databases. If they don’t, you and your vote can be bounced from the vote count.

All but one of those eight states went Republican in 2016, the first presidential election since the Supreme Court cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act and, as a result, freed more states to add requirements to voting rights. The Court’s rationale: voter suppression really didn’t happen any more.

Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Texas then proceeded to wake the voter suppression from its supposed grave. Perhaps less radically than the strictest states, they now merely request photo IDs, but can turn away voters who don’t have them. All but two of those states also favored the Republican candidate in 2016.

Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio also are reducing turnouts in historically liberal and minority-rich counties by purging their rolls of registered voters who haven’t voted in previous elections, by closing polling places convenient to minority voters and purging people who haven’t responded to recent election commission mailings. If you are willing to go through the process of contesting the state’s findings, you can.

MSNBC/ Craig Newmark Foundation

The point isn’t that Republicans are tilting the table in their favor. (Republicans are on the national popular vote advocates’ board.) In the future, Democrats could get canny enough to do the same thing again in their favor (see: Chicago, Tammany Hall, etc.) The point is that the system is now more vulnerable to this kind of poisoning than ever, and that the poisoning works.

Power to the Correct People! Between 2016 and 2018, Florida purged more than 7% its voters, notably in Dade and Broward counties. Its conservative senatorial and gubernatorial candidates in 2018 won by .4 of 1% and a tenth of 1%, respectively.

Georgia purged 10.6%. Its new governor’s victory margin in 2018 was 1.4%. North Carolina, in turn, purged 11.7% of its voter rolls, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.

All this is being done in the name of minimizing voter fraud, which the Brennan Center (and numerous academic studies) found barely exists. There were just four documented cases in 2016, when 137.5 million people voted.

And of course the tactics are also an effective way to blunt the demographic changes in the electorate widely assumed to benefit centrist and liberal candidates. In practice they not only help elect conservative candidates, but tend to keep racial minorities, the disabled, the elderly, recent immigrant families and even long-time residents of traditionally liberal counties away from the polls.

The 2016 presidential election was the first since the Supreme Court lifted voting regulations meant to protect voting rights in states with records of keeping certain people — mostly African American — silent. It was also the second presidential contest after the Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that equated money with free speech, and flooded the vote stream with dark, often-untraceable money that can help fund suppression or discourage people from voting.

Empower the Rest. To repeat, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact’s Electoral College reforms are a great idea. But they have little to do with the biggest threat to election integrity, which is the ability of local politicians to keep local supporters of an opposing party from casting ballots. They aim in a different direction: distributing a state’s Electoral College votes proportionally to how voters have cast their ballots.

They’re getting closer to winning. With Colorado in tow and New Mexico thisclose to signing up, the compact states will represent 186 of the 270 votes needed to win the presidency. Sixteen other state legislatures are considering bills that would have them join. The Hill, the daily political news feed, grades four of them — Delaware, Maine, Nevada and Oregon — as the next most likely to pass the bills.

I agree the plan would indeed produce winners who better reflect the will of more people more accurately. The will and brute tactics of the two major political parties, in turn, would be discounted on a national level.

Elections, however, get compromised on the local, state level, not the national level.

The infection’s source. If the 25 states that have already moved to restrict voting continue to truncate the electorate, certain voters’ ballots still won’t be counted in either state or national votes. That result will still disproportionately reflect the will of the declining and culturally homogenous number of voters still allowed to cast ballots.

But maybe there’s a way to carve up the system that could meet many of the reformers’ goals and address the sources of the infection.

Let states keep all their Electoral College votes, let the vote of the state’s population continue to determine which candidate gets them, but let the number of votes they have float.

The number would go up or down depending on the vote turnout in that state during the previous presidential election.

If the turnout improves, the number of the state’s electoral votes would rise by, say, one. Its residents’ (and their leaders’) electoral weight would increase. If turnout declines, it would lose, say, one electoral vote.

States’ (and politicians’) electoral influence would thus depend on getting as many residents \to the polls as possible. With a broader “base” to play to, national politicians would need to give leaders of high-turnout states more consideration in national policymaking.

What wouldn’t change. Currently, the number of electoral votes each state has depends on the number of senators and representatives it has. Its number of representatives, in turn, depends on the size of its population, children and non-voters as well as voters.

That wouldn’t change. The number of congressional districts and representatives it has would still be based on a state’s population size. But the number of Electoral College votes it has would depend on voters’ behavior and politicians’ skill at getting out the vote.

An example: My state’s nine electoral votes might fall to eight if, say, fewer than 65% of its adults are eligible voters and fewer than 65% of them cast ballots. (The average national turnout in presidential elections is in the low 60s and falling.) If the totals fall short the next cycle, we’d be down to seven. If we improve turnout by a certain percentage we’d go back to eight or nine and, depending on how good we are at it, ten or more.

On the simplest level, letting the number of electoral votes float with voter turnout would reward states that care enough to vote and, not least, leaders truly committed to small-D democratic principles.

I’d leave it to experts to work out the mechanisms and triggers for increases or declines. With luck, they would thus motivate parties to maximize, not suppress, voting in their states. Most importantly, it would move the outcomes more securely into the hands of states and a broader representation of the 247 million adults in America.

Author, Paradigms Lost: the life & deaths of the printed word; A Small Treason (out summer, 2021)

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