The solution doesn’t require a constitutional amendment
Last week the New York Times’ Farhad Majoo wrote a column saying he’s voted in every election since 2000 and, as a Californian, “not once do I remember a presidential candidate ever making an effort to get my vote.” Thank the Electoral College, the system by which Americans elect their president and by which candidates from both parties see California as blue enough, or Texas as red enough, to ignore them on the campaign trail, which means their concerns are ignored in the Oval Office, too. I won’t detail the machinations of the Electoral College here. I assume you know them. What I’ll say instead is that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Any chance I get I recommend this essay from the Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Eric Foner. He showed how strange and anti-democratic the Electoral College is. No other country elects its chief executive as America does, even the countries whose constitutions U.S. officials helped write, like Germany and Japan’s. No other American election relies on the Electoral College. No one here really likes it anyway. We use it only because it was a back-room compromise at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and a way for Northern elites like Alexander Hamilton to deter the “tyrannical” threat of one-person one-vote populism. James Madison quite famously hated the Electoral College because it denied one-person one-vote democracy, but Madison was overruled by his fellow Southern politicians, who saw in the Electoral College a way to claim for their states more power than they might otherwise have.
Why was that the case? Slavery. Slaves couldn’t vote but they still counted toward a state’s population figure. That population figure influenced the number of members a state could send to Congress. And that in turn influenced how many electors a state would be given in a presidential election.
I cite this history for the same reason Jesse Wegman does, who’s written a book on the Electoral College and last week summarized his findings in an excellent video explainer piece. From the start, the Electoral College was out to screw a lot of us. It still is. By Wegman’s count, 80 percent of the voting public, roughly100 million Americans, cast votes that effectively don’t sway any presidential election. These are Democrats and Republicans, cycle after presidential cycle.
So we have it wrong in America: There are no Red States or Blue States. Just a handful of Swing States, which decide presidents and, because of that, policies. Kamala Harris and Mike Pence discussed fracking 10 times in their vice presidential debate. Fracking is a key issue in Pennsylvania, a swing state. The pair, however, mentioned climate change once, which effects us all.
The fundamental flaw of the Electoral College—it’s warped view of democracy—places even more attention on those Swing States. Wegman shows how if Joe Biden wins next week’s election by 4.5 million votes, he has a three-in-four chance of winning the presidency. That’s disturbing enough, but “anything less,” Wegman writes, “and Mr. Biden’s odds drop like a rock. A mere three million-vote Biden victory? A second Trump term suddenly becomes more likely than not. If Mr. Biden’s margin drops to 1.5 million — about the populations of Rhode Island and Wyoming combined — forget about it. The chance of a Biden presidency in that scenario is less than one in 10.”
Despite the shocking statistics he has at the ready, Wegman remains optimistic:
“There is a movement brewing among states to agree to award their electors to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote. When enough states join in this Interstate Compact, it’ll mean that the popular-vote winner will always become president. So far, 15 states plus the District of Columbia have joined in for a total of 196 electoral votes, just 74 more. And that’s it. Suddenly, every voter will count, no matter where they live.”
So vote on November 3rd. And then pressure your Congressional representatives to join the Interstate Compact.
New to my writing? I’m a best-selling author who’s written for The New Yorker, GQ, ESPN, and New York, among other titles. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I’m now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.