The usefulness of the Electoral College has been debated many times over, but for the first time in recent memory, a widely regarded presidential hopeful has made its abolition a major policy proposal.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat representing mid-sized Massachusetts with 11 electoral votes, has proposed doing away with the Electoral College. She is correct in seeing it as an obstacle in achieving the democratic will of the American people.
Donald Trump agreed with Warren’s position in 2012 when he tweeted that the Electoral College was a “disaster for democracy.”
But now President Trump – who was elected with an Electoral College majority despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton two years ago – has changed his position. He argues that the Electoral College is needed to protect states with small populations, including states in the Midwest.
Trump was right seven years ago and wrong today.
The president’s supporters argue that opposition by Democrats to the Electoral College is just another Trump-phobic power grab by the left. However, we have only had three presidents from small states in our nation’s history. With the exception of Bill Clinton, all of our modern presidents going back to Reagan have come from states with at least 20 electoral votes.
The only Midwestern president elected by the Electoral College since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 was Barack Obama, a Democrat. The Republicans who have since made it to the White House through the Electoral College have been from the coastal states with the most electoral votes. Reagan and Nixon were from California, both Bushes were from Texas (sort of), and Trump is a New Yorker.
In high school you were probably taught that the Electoral College is about federalism and keeping the presidency independent from Congress. While there are some elements of truth to that analysis, the Electoral College morphed quickly into a means of protecting the interests of Southern elite slaveholders by the turn of the 19th century.
Slaveholders who held more than 50 people enslaved were less than 3 percent of the South’s population. But when James Wilson of Pennsylvania proposed that the Constitution create a presidential election free from the constraints of the Electoral College, James Madison of Virginia dissented.
Madison, a slaveholder who went on to become our fourth president, felt that the South would be disadvantaged because it was agrarian with a small population of white men who were allowed to vote.
Madison suggested what became known as the Three-fifths Compromise, which said that enslaved Africans would count for three-fifths of a person toward the South’s population, but would not be afforded voting rights.
Northern states with more potential voters lost out to Virginia because of the latter’s enormous population of enslaved Africans – accounting for an estimated 40 percent Virginia’s population. As a result, Virginia nearly dominated the White House for the subsequent three decades.
Yale University constitutional scholar Akil Reed Amar states that a common refrain after Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams in the race for the presidency was the “Jefferson rode into the White House on the backs of slaves.”
Today presidential candidates don’t spend time in areas that are dominated by one party. They instead focus on so-called battleground states. They don’t feel the need to challenge for every vote or drive up turnout.
This means candidates spend large amounts of time in Ohio and Wisconsin because those states can go to either party’s presidential candidate and carry substantial electoral weight.
Since 2004, data shows that 46 percent of general election campaign visits by presidential candidates have been concentrated in five states in the Rust Belt – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Democratic voters in heavily red Utah and Republican voters in blue Hawaii deserve some attention and for their votes to count.
The desire to maintain the Electoral College is consistent with the Republican Party’s desire to limit our democracy and take power away from the majority of voters. It goes along with other voter suppression efforts such as requiring voter identification, the elimination of early voting, and Republican opposition to making Election Day a federal holiday.
If Republicans were truly concerned with representation for rural voters in South Carolina, as GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of that state suggests, they would not have supported a trade war that has had a deleterious effect on soybean, pig, and other farmers.
In addition, President Trump and other Republicans rarely visit the rural Black Belt of the Mississippi Delta, where poverty is rampant, wages are low, education is deplorable and there is an environmental crisis. Their concern for rural voters, particularly black and brown ones who could potentially vote Democratic, seems to evaporate.
The Electoral College is a roadblock for our democracy. It should be removed.