For the first time in modern history, abolishing the Electoral College is a presidential campaign issue.
Here’s a sampling of statements from the 2020 candidates:
- Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) told the San Francisco Chronicle that she was “open” to abolishing the constitutional mechanism for selecting the president.
- Mayor Pete Buttigieg doubled down on his support for getting rid of the Electoral College in an NBC News interview, calling the institution “undemocratic.”
- Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke said in a video posted to Twitter that he sees “a lot of wisdom” in abolishing the Electoral College.
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) declared in a CNN Town Hall that we need to “get rid of the Electoral College.”
It’s not surprising since two of the last three presidents won the presidency without winning the popular vote — just look at the 2000 electoral map and 2016 electoral map. It’s not surprising that mostly Democratic candidates are backing these changes since their party lost out in both of those elections.
But it’s also not surprising since the main arguments for keeping the Electoral College are based on three often repeated myths.
Myth 1: Rural Areas Would Be Ignored
Many argue that without the Electoral College, candidates would spend all their time campaigning in large urban areas and would ignore the more rural parts of the country.
But this argument makes little sense. After all, presidential candidates don’t campaign in rural areas because there aren’t many votes to be won in those areas.
Even in today’s battleground states where they do actively campaign, the candidates almost exclusively focus on urban areas where most voters live.
Myth 2: Electors Moderate the Passions of Voters
The most often heard case for the Electoral College is that it provides a check on voters in the event that their “passions,” as James Madison warned in the Federalist Papers, cause them to accidentally elect a poor president.
While that argument might have made sense in the early days of the nation, electors are no longer independent agents. They’re actually explicitly picked for their party loyalty.
In fact, since the majority of states have moved to a winner-take-all system, electors rarely act in defiance of the party they selected them. The few cases of faithless electors has never actually made a difference in the outcome of an election.
Myth 3: It Prevents Contested Elections
Supporters of the Electoral College suggest the system prevents close elections which could paralyze the country while votes are contested.
The example given is in 1960 when John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by just 0.17 percentage points. A nationwide recount would have taken weeks and probably ended up in court. However, Kennedy’s Electoral College win of 303 to 219 prevented the chaos of a contested election.
However, as we saw in the 2000 presidential election, a close race in a single state can lead to the same chaos. Although Al Gore comfortably won the national popular vote, the electoral vote hinged on a few hundred votes in Florida. It was actually the Electoral College that led to the chaos and a delayed election result.
Abolishing the Electoral College Is Not Easy
Abolishing the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment, involving two-thirds approval from both the House and Senate and subsequent approval by 38 states – a process that seems unlikely to happen in today’s hyper partisan country. That’s also why so many previous Electroral College reform proposals have gone nowhere.
But there is an elegant proposal called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact which would attempt to bypass the Electoral College. The idea is to get enough states to pledge to award their electoral votes to whoever won the national popular vote. If laws were passed in enough states that controlled at least 270 electoral votes, then the actual Electoral College would no longer matter.