Two of our last three presidents lost the popular vote, yet we’ll be living with their judges, laws and executive orders for a long time. That doesn’t happen in any other country.
When George W. Bush lost the popular vote, but “won” the 2000 election, my heart turned to ash. That our country would award its highest office to the loser just seemed wrong. We couldn’t allow this to happen again. To a number of friends I argued for dumping the Electoral College.
A summary of their responses: “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing ... not worth the fight ... won’t happen again.”
Fast-forward to 2016. It happens again. Donald Trump loses by 3 million votes.
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In the days after the election, as you might imagine, those friends who’d differed with me years ago, dialed up and rang my phone off the hook to say, “Mea culpa! We have to unplug the Electoral College so this won’t happen again!”
Well, just as phones no longer have dials, rings or hooks, no one actually said those things to me. But I’d like to believe they are having those thoughts. Perhaps you are too.
Where does the Electoral College come from?
Neutralizing the Electoral College not only strengthens our democracy and sends a message of repudiation to Donald Trump. It addresses a timely issue too. Confederate monuments are symbols of white supremacy that should come down. But the Electoral College is essentially a much worse slavery-era monument that has actively fueled white supremacy for centuries: it inaugurated as president the second-place candidate who repealed Reconstruction in 1876; George W. Bush’s Supreme Court picks tipped the scales against the Voting Rights Act and campaign finance laws.
The conventional wisdom is that the Founders fabricated the Electoral College simply to protect the smaller states. But why don’t any of the 50 states use the practice to protect less-populated counties? And why don’t any other democratic nations use an electoral college to choose their chief executives?
The truth is that like a Confederate soldier on a pedestal, the Electoral College originally stood on two legs, both of which skewed power in favor of slave states.
First, by counting enslaved non-voters as three-fifths of a person, slave states gained more seats in the U.S. House as well as additional seats in the Electoral College. In 1800, Pennsylvania had 10 percent more free persons than slave-state Virginia. But it also had 20 percent fewer electoral votes.
Clearly this feature worked as intended. For 32 of our first 36 years slave-owning Virginians held the presidency due to Electoral College wins (popular votes for those elections were not recorded). Granted, this practice no longer applies, but it reveals the poisoned ground from which the undemocratic Electoral College grew. And explains it’s total absence in other democracies.
Second, regardless of size, each state also received a pair of electors to match its two U.S. senators. These two-votes-per-state in the Electoral College were another means for putting the slave owners’ heavy thumbs on the scale of democracy. This feature still benefits small states, many of which are in the old Confederacy. But we don’t have to live with the dead hands of the slave owners tucked into our ballot boxes forever.
How can we fix this?
Striking the Electoral College from the Constitution can only be done with a two-thirds vote of Congress and the endorsement of 38 of the 50 states. So it won’t be happening under the present congressional leadership.
But there is a quicker, legal work-around called the Interstate Compact (www.nationalpopularvote.com). Eleven states with 165 electoral votes have already approved the Compact, which commits their electors to the winner of the national popular vote. When states with another 105 electors (270 are required to win the presidency) support the Compact, the Electoral College becomes meaningless.
If enough citizens on the left, right and center (Never Trump’ers, are you listening?) want to ensure that our next president is the one with the most votes in 2020 then we have to elect a lot of pro-Compact state legislators in 2018. Only then can we dismantle the biggest, most dangerous monument from our slave-owning past. And send a message to President Trump too.
Frank Hyman has held two elected offices and is the policy analyst for Blue Collar Comeback. He will be speaking on this issue at 2 p.m. Jan. 27 at Stanford Warren Library, 1201 Fayetteville St. in Durham.