Will Barbara Boxer succeed in abolishing the Electoral College?

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California has introduced a bill to abolish the Electoral College, after Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election. The bill is unlikely to succeed, but there may be other options.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File
U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (right) greets U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer at a fundraiser in San Francisco, California, in October. Sen. Boxer introduced a proposal that would abolish the Electoral College, giving the presidency to the winner of the popular vote – in this case, Secretary Clinton.

Calling the current US system for choosing a president “outdated” and “undemocratic,” Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced a bill on Tuesday that would abolish the Electoral College. 

The senator from California, who is retiring in January, aims to amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College and establish the principle of “one person, one vote” in presidential elections. Such movements have been revived following the 2016 election, where Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton – who is expected to win the popular vote by more than 2 million votes – lost to Republican nominee Donald Trump, who won the Electoral College.

Though the constitutional amendment is unlikely to pass, the bill is one of a number of reform efforts that suggest shifting American attitudes toward democracy. Efforts are already underway to make the Electoral College obsolete at the state level, and these efforts could win new support following the closely-fought 2016 election.

“The Electoral College is an outdated, undemocratic system that does not reflect our modern society, and it needs to change immediately. Every American should be guaranteed that their vote counts,” Senator Boxer said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Electoral College assigns a certain number of votes to each state. With the exceptions of Maine and Nebraska, the winner takes all of a state’s electoral votes. 

President-elect Trump’s victory is the fifth time that a candidate has won the Electoral College – and the election – without winning the popular vote. The last time this happened was in 2000, when the Supreme Court ended a recount in Florida, giving the state to George W. Bush. Al Gore won the popular vote.

Over the years, hundreds of bills have been introduced to eliminate the Electoral College. Boxer herself has co-sponsored several, though none have been considered.

MoveOn.org, a progressive digital organizing group, has a petition calling for the abolition of the Electoral College. The petition had more than 540,000 signatures as of Wednesday morning, which may be a sign of new momentum on the issue following Clinton’s surprise loss.

Attitudes may also be shifting on the Republican side. In 2012, Mr Trump tweeted: “The electoral college is a disaster for democracy.” In a CBS “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday, he said that his win would not change his attitude, explaining, “I would rather see it where you went with simple votes. You know, you get 100 million votes and somebody else gets 90 million votes and you win."

On Tuesday morning, however, he reversed that criticism, calling the system “genius”:

Ultimately, an amendment may be unlikely, at least in the near future. It would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress, and three-fourths of the states would then have to ratify the amendment within seven years.

However, change is already underway at the state level, where 10 states and the District of Columbia have passed the National Popular Vote plan. The plan currently represents 165 Electoral College votes, meaning it needs states totaling 105 more votes to sign on in order to become the de facto means of electing a president.

But as Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog noted in 2014, swing states such as Ohio, New Hampshire, and Colorado, which have the most influence over the system now, have little incentive to join the push for a popular vote: 

These states, along with Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, collectively had a 98.6 percent chance of determining the Electoral College winner in 2012, according to the FiveThirtyEight tipping-point index as it was calculated on election morning. In other words, these nine states are 70 times more powerful than the other 41 (which collectively had a 1.4 percent chance of determining the winner) combined. That’s part of the reason so many Americans object to the Electoral College. But states whose voters have a disproportionate amount of influence may be in no mood to give it up.

Others are hoping that states’ representatives will not vote for Trump when they meet in mid-December. Some 4.3 million Americans are asking them to choose Clinton instead, though history suggests this is unlikely.

The electors convene on December 19th to formally elect the next US president.

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