“the Electoral College is, and long has been, out of step with the nation’s values – never more so than when it has elevated to the presidency candidates who did not win the popular vote.” P.379 Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? Alexander Keyssar
So far, the Electoral College has produced five occasions when the popular vote winner lost – two within the last 20 years. The “wrong winner” outcome disturbs many Americans. Noted historian Alexander Keyssar believes it violates the nation’s democratic values and the Electoral College should be abolished.
Yet history shows democratic values are pliable, and often deployed by competing parties in pursuit of a desired end. Democratic values, in fact, are as likely to be used in defense of a political outcome as they are to influence political competition.
The nation’s values are not the real source of Electoral College opposition. Rather, the results of presidential elections determine preferences. Winners, for example, will support the system that elevated them to power. And losers will seek to reform the system that led to their defeat.
Democratic values are called on to validate those positions. They are used as shields to defend the status quo and swords to advance change.
Abolishing the Electoral College was bipartisan
Recall from part 1, for many years most Americans supported abolishing the Electoral College. In 1968, for example, 66% approved the idea of amending the Constitution to replace the Electoral College with a popular vote. Nearly the same percentage of partisans approved – 66% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats. A rare example of bipartisan agreement.
That same year, Richard Nixon defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey by a nose – winning the popular vote by less than 1%. The contest almost produced a “wrong winner”. Moreover, a third party run by George Wallace attracted a noteworthy 13.5% of the popular vote and accumulated 46 electoral college votes.
Neither party felt advantaged by the Electoral College, yet both parties were concerned with the success of Wallace and the potential of a contingent House election – 3rd party candidates could deprive a major party candidate of the necessary Electoral College majority.
Accordingly, Congress introduced a constitutional amendment to elect presidents by a popular vote. It passed the House easily, gaining more than 80% of each party – 339 to 70. However, it could not overcome a Senate filibuster of small-state senators.
Bipartisan no more
In 2000, while post-election litigation was still being decided, Gallup asked Americans which they preferred, “to amend the constitution so that the candidate who receives the most total votes nationwide wins the election, or to keep the current system, in which the candidate who wins the most votes in the Electoral College wins the election.” Seventy-three percent of Democrats supported a constitutional amendment while less than half of Republicans (46%) did so.
For the first time since Gallup began asking the question in the 1940s, overall support for a popular vote amendment dropped below 60%. Republicans shifted their support to Electoral College while Democrats backed the popular vote. Partisans supported the system that benefited their candidates.
In short, the 2000 “wrong-winner” outcome effectively politicized the Electoral College.
In 2004, Bush won the popular vote and Electoral College, and Barack Obama did the same in 2008 and 2012. This quelled Democrat fears of a Republican lock on the Electoral College and dampened Republican fears of a Democrat lock on the popular vote. By 2012, the split between Democrats and Republicans had narrowed from 27 to 18 points.
However, 2016 changed everything.
A few weeks after Donald Trump won the presidency, but lost the popular vote, Gallup reported a record low level of support for the popular vote amendment – 49%.
While Democrats increased their support for the popular vote to 81%, Republican support decreased notably to a mere 17%. The partisan divide stood at a whopping 64 points – compare that to the 27 point gap after the 2000 election.
Two months before the 2020 election, Gallup asked Americans once again to consider the popular vote. This time, nearly 90% of Democrats and only 23% of Republicans supported it – a 65 point gap.
This short history demonstrates that Electoral College preferences changed after the popular vote winner lost the election. Predictably, support for reform stirred among those stung by defeat while winners backed the status quo. This pattern is familiar for most electoral reforms. Political rank – not democratic values – determine preferences.
Let’s consider two election outcomes that nearly happened. First, assume in 2000 George Bush picked up another 500,000 votes and Al Gore won his home state of Tennessee. Al Gore then becomes the “wrong winner” instead of George Bush – losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College.
Second, assume in 2004 that 60,000 votes switched in Ohio, giving John Kerry Ohio’s 20 electoral college votes. John Kerry becomes a “wrong winner”. Two presidential elections, back to back, producing “wrong winners” that favor Democrats.
Now, what is your best guess about partisan support for the popular vote?
It’s very likely that Democrat’s support would drop, noticeably, while Republican support would grow – the opposite pattern depicted in the graph.
Political preferences are not fixed. When circumstances change, as in the example, you can bet preferences will as well. Support for election reform is rarely about lofty democratic ideals. It’s about who won and who lost.
Finally, the Electoral College is not inherently biased against either party. And it has produced great presidents as well as imperfect ones. Perhaps, this is the proper lens to examine presidential selection. Are the best prospects running for office and winning elections? If not, would a popular vote system do better?
A question to consider as talk heats up about electoral reform.