USA

Bill O'Reilly: Electoral College opponents aim to disempower 'white establishment'

Conservative Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly says liberals want to abolish the nation's current presidential election system to wrestle power from the 'white establishment.' But it's not clear that adopting the popular vote would immediately do that.

Political commentator Bill O'Reilly attends the National Geographic Channel's 'Killing Kennedy' 2013 world premiere screening reception at The Newseum, in Washington.
Paul Morigi/AP/File | Caption

Bill O’Reilly doesn’t want the Electoral College – or the disproportionate power it brings rural, white voters – to disappear.

In a two-and-a-half minute introduction to the segment, the conservative Fox News anchor threw his support behind the system, insisting its survival was necessary to ensure that voters in predominantly rural states are not overrun by a growing population of minorities in city centers.

“The left sees white privilege in America as an oppressive force that must be done away with.” he told The O'Reilly Factor viewers on Tuesday. “The left wants power taken away from the white establishment. They want a profound change in the way America is run. Taking voting power away from the white precincts is the quickest way to do that.”

The segment has left liberals reeling, with many calling Mr. O’Reilly’s comments racist, saying he appears to prefer white votes holding additional influence over ballots cast by minorities. But for some, O’Reilly’s comments illuminate a larger segment of the population that fears the eroding influence of white voters in a rapidly changing America – the very group that President-elect Donald Trump rallied to win key swing states.

Those disappointed with Mr. Trump’s victory have protested the centuries-old system and called for a shift to a popular vote that would create equity among individual votes nationwide. Others have pushed back, arguing that the system put in place by the Founding Fathers in 1787 is a traditional and key element of the US democratic process.

O’Reilly is correct from a mathematical standpoint: The Electoral College does place an emphasis on votes from those in rural, and generally white, areas, allowing a vote cast in Wyoming, for example, to have 3.6 times the influence of one cast in California. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the system is working better for them, says George Edwards, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University.

Under the current system, candidates focus their attention on big swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, never taking the time to visit with voters in large swaths of rural America. That lack of access can hinder voter turnout in states as different as Wyoming and California.

“Right now, the candidates ignore rural areas,” Dr. Edwards tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “You can’t do worse than nothing. Any change in the system can’t make them worse off than nothing."

In O'Reilly's view, however, a popular vote system would essentially strip states like Wyoming of their voice in the presidential election. Under today's system, Democratic and Republican candidates alike spend time in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, not only drumming up support but also taking time to hear directly from voters about what issues are important to them.

In the segment, he argued that abolishing the electoral college would make large cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston more appealing campaign destinations for Democratic candidates, who may seek to win favor with minorities and urban dwellers and tip the national vote to the left while largely ignoring white voters living in “fly-over” states.

“[Liberals] well know that neutralizing the largely rural white areas in the Midwest and South will ensure liberal politicians get power and keep it,” O’Reilly said. “White working class voters must be marginalized. And what better way to do that than center the power in the cities?”

O'Reilly's characterization that the push to abolish the Electoral College is driven by a desire to overthrow the reign of “white privilege” on the electoral process has drawn particular critisism from both ends of the political spectrum. 

Juan Williams, a Fox News contributor and regular substitute host for The O'Reilly Factor, dismissed O'Reilly's claim that race is the driving factor in the debate around the Electoral College.

"There is a racial overlay," Mr. Williams said on the show. "But not everybody who is challenging the Electoral College is doing it because of race. Lots of people think it should be 'one person, one vote' no matter where you live in America. But if you're out in the sticks now your vote is now worth more than a vote in California."

That's a major sticking point for proponents of the popular vote. But, in O'Reilly's view, simply reverting to a system based on the popular vote would not just bring the weight of a single vote in California in line with a vote in Wyoming, it would also tip the entire election into the hands of Californians.

With more than 39 million residents, California is the most populous state, making up roughly 12 percent of the United States population. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won California by 4.3 million votes. If the same were to happen under a popuar vote system, California could in effect cancel out the votes of a whole handful of smaller states.

Bu Dr. Edwards, who wrote the book “Why the Electoral College is Bad for America,” suggested that if the popular vote were the law of the land, the campaign in California – and ostensibly the outcome – would have been very different.

As it is now, candidates take for granted that California will go blue. But there are nearly 5 million registered Republicans in California, 30 times as many as in Wyoming. If every vote was to be weighed individually, Republican and Democratic candidates alike would spend time in the state – a point Donald Trump alluded to shortly after the election.

“[Candidates] don’t run ads in California. They don’t invest in the ground game in California,” Edwards says. “But they would. They would take their case to people everywhere because all those votes count.”