The Lovely But Unloved Electoral College

April 11, 2019

Abolishing the Electoral College is a fashionable campaign pledge for Democrats running for president. Declaring “every vote matters,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren says we should “get rid” of it. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand proclaims American democracy “can’t function” until that happens. Sen. Cory Booker, former Rep. Robert Francis O’Rourke and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro support ending it, as do Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (“archaic”) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (“it’s gotta go”). Sen. Bernie Sanders calls the Electoral College “a little bit weird” and wants to “rethink” it, while Sen. Kamala Harris is “open to the discussion,” along with Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Yet there’s zero chance this happens. To abolish the Electoral College, Congress would have to propose a constitutional amendment by a two-thirds vote in both houses—and then three-fourths of the states would need to ratify it. Since the Electoral College gives a larger voice to less-populated states, there will be more than enough opposition to block such a move.

Still, it’s worth contemplating what would happen if the Electoral College disappeared. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in its defense in Federalist No. 68: “If the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.” Despite infrequent challenges, the Electoral College has given the U.S. remarkable stability. Eliminating it would hardly usher in an era of democratic satisfaction.

Opponents focus on the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton received 2,868,686 votes more than Donald Trump, a margin of 2.09 points. Yet Mr. Trump eked out narrow victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and defeated Mrs. Clinton 304-227. This was a rare divergence. In 58 U.S. presidential elections, the winner trailed in the popular vote in only five (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016). And there were extenuating circumstances for three of them.

Winning GOP candidates may have fallen short in the popular vote in 1876 and 1888 only because the black Republican vote in the South was being extinguished by violence. In 2000, all the TV networks called Florida—and with it, the election—for Al Gore by 8:02 p.m. Eastern Time, while votes were still being cast in the Panhandle. Turnout rose from 1996 to 2000, but it’s no coincidence that the increase was a quarter less in states where the polls were open when the media declared the race over. While many Western Democrats turned out to seal their wins triumphantly, Republicans were more likely to be discouraged and stay home, probably costing George W. Bush several hundred thousand votes and two states, New Mexico and Oregon.

The two remaining elections in which the winner failed to achieve a popular-vote plurality were the mess in 1824—none of the four candidates had an Electoral College majority, so the House decided the race for John Quincy Adams—and 2016.

In contrast, imagine how many recounts there would be if the popular vote decided it all. Even safely Republican and solidly Democratic states would order recounts, as each party tried adding to its national numbers.

They’d have every reason to: James Garfield’s popular-vote margin in 1880 was only 1,898 ballots, or 0.09% of the nationwide vote. John F. Kennedy won in 1960 by 0.17%, Grover Cleveland in 1884 by 0.57%, Richard Nixon in 1968 by 0.7%, James Polk in 1844 by 1.45%, and Jimmy Carter in 1976 by 2.06%. In each of these six instance, the winner had a healthy Electoral College margin.

Then consider the 19 contests—nearly one-third of all presidential races—in which the president came into office with less than 50% of the popular vote. It was their substantial Electoral College victories that provided mandates to govern.

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