It Is Time To Abolish The Electoral College
In recent days, at least three 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have called for getting rid of the Electoral College. In 2016, it handed the Oval Office to Donald Trump even though he lost the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million ballots.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Peter Buttigieg all have advocated junking the college without walls as anachronistic, and obviously contrary to the Supreme Court concept of one man (and one woman), one vote.
As Warren put it in a tweet: “Every vote matters. We need to get rid of the Electoral College so that presidential candidates have to ask every American in every part of the country for their vote, not just those in battleground states.”
O’Rourke agreed, saying benignly, “I think there’s a lot of wisdom at that.” Many millennials no doubt would call the proposition a no-brainer.
By giving short campaign shrift to lopsided Democratic-voting states like California and Republican-voting states like Mississippi, Warren notes, Trump was able to zero in on Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. He cobbled together enough electoral votes in those states to beat Clinton in electoral votes 304-227.
Thus, for the fifth time in our political history — and more critically for the second time in our last five presidential elections — the loser of the popular vote ascended to the White House. In this dubious distinction, Trump joined George W. Bush. Both went on to have disastrous and unpopular presidencies, but that reality is beside the point in terms of our national concept of a functioning democracy.
The other three presidents elected without a majority of popular vote were John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888. Adams was elevated over Andrew Jackson under a new 12th Amendment to the Constitution, wherein each state had one vote of House and Senate members assembled.
A third candidate, House Speaker Henry Clay, was alleged to have thrown his support to Adams in a deal in which he became Adams’ secretary of state. Clay denied there was a deal, but Jackson loudly condemned it as “bare-faced corruption” never witnessed “in any country before.”
Ten years ago, in my book “No Way to Pick a President,” I quoted a colloquy between John F. Kennedy — when he was a senator representing Massachusetts — and his Senate colleague John Pastore, a Democrat from Rhode Island. Kennedy asked Pastore, “Would the senator do away with the two electors which his state has by virtue of the fact that it has two senators of the United States?”
Pastore first noted that the president is “of the people of the United States, and not the president of the states,” then added: “I would do away with the whole Electoral College. … I would not care where they (the candidates) came from, whether they came from the North, the South, the West or the East. They are all Americans. We are all one country. I say let us vote for the best man. It is as simple as that. That is my idea of representative government. Everything beyond that is a gimmick.”
My comment then still stands today: “Gimmick or not, the Electoral College remains in existence today a Rube Goldberg mechanism that few Americans know about or understand, whose chief contribution to our political system is its way of making possible the installation of a person whom a majority of Americans don’t want. This particular college should close its doors.”
The question now is whether the erratic and reckless presidency of Donald Trump will in the next two years persuade the increasingly partisan Congress to correct the founding fathers’ mistake and prevent elections of the president by electoral minorities.
As long as the U.S. Senate remains in Republican hands, killing this institution that is contrary to our democracy’s core is no more predictable right now, than is impeachment or resignation of Trump under Democratic or broader political fire.
But the practical argument for it is more imperative now than ever before, with a demonstrably corrupt, serial-lying and personally immoral man occupying our highest public office and staining its reputation, and the nation, with each passing day.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.