An easy way to reform the Electoral College

If 2016 election results hold up, a candidate has won the presidency while losing the popular vote five times in US history. One reform could address that without changing the Constitution, but passage is unlikely.

Bob Child/AP/File
Presidential electors in Connecticut cast their ballots at the state Capitol in Hartford a month after the 2004 presidential election.

Absentee votes are still being counted, but two days after the election, it continues to look possible that Hillary Clinton, despite losing the Electoral College decisively, will narrowly win the national popular vote.

With 92 percent of the national vote counted as of 1 p.m. Eastern time Thursday, Mrs. Clinton had 60,082,742 votes to Donald Trump’s 59,794,029, according to a live CNN tally. Yet if Michigan is included (many news outlets have not yet called the state), Mr. Trump won the Electoral College vote, 306 to 232.

It would be the fifth time a president-elect has won a presidential election while losing the popular vote, and the second time in the past 16 years. And it again raises the question of what value the Electoral College is supposed to bring.

Enshrining the College in the Constitution in 1787, the Founding Fathers had a dual purpose.

First, by counting the vote by state instead of collectively, the Electoral College was a compromise in favor of small states – ensuring that they would have a voice in selecting the president.

But it was also seen as creating a buffer between the general population and the selection of the president. The Electoral College is made up of “electors” – people who cast the actual vote for president. These electors are chosen by rules laid out by each state legislature, and the number of electors in each state is equal to the number of US senators and representatives that state has in Congress.

Traditionally, the electors select whichever candidate wins the popular vote in their state (or, in the case of Maine and Nebraska, their specific congressional district). But that is not constitutionally mandated.

Describing the function of the electors in the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote: “A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”

“It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder,” he added. “This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of government as the President of the United States.”

To critics, the Electoral College might actually do the opposite this year – amplifying a wave of populist passion that would not have been strong enough to tip the popular vote.

“I don’t think that the electoral college really works for the way elections today, modern elections, are starting to pan out,” says Shirin Shoai, a psychotherapist living in Berkeley, Calif., who strongly opposed Trump. “It keeps happening: We keep getting presidents who win the popular vote and lose the election, and that doesn’t make sense.”

But the system has benefits, many argue. By giving small states at least three Electoral College votes, it “prevents [candidates] from ignoring states that are small, so [they] don’t camp out in big cities,” says David Lublin, a professor of government at American University in Washington.

Trump capitalized on this by generating big rural voter turnout.

The Electoral College also helps avoid contentious recounts and runoff elections, and it requires candidates to appeal across regions, writes Richard Posner, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, on Slate.

But the evolution of reliably red and blue states has meant that presidential campaigns focus their efforts on just a handful of “battleground” states where electoral votes are up for grabs.

In 2012, for example, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent a combined $837 million on advertising, with $451 million going to Florida, Ohio, and Virginia alone, according to the nonpartisan nonprofit FairVote.

“We ignore 40 states in the presidential election,” says Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “That’s just not good for public policy, and it’s not good for the political system in the United States.”

Mr. Anuzis now advocates for a national popular vote system. Under this plan, jurisdictions possessing at least 270 of the 538 available electoral votes would change their rules to force electors to support the candidate who wins the national popular vote.

One advantage of the system is that it doesn’t scrap the Electoral College (which would require a constitutional amendment). Anuzis also believes it would force presidential candidates to make their case to voters around the country.

“They would have to run in every state because they would depend on winning the national popular vote,” he says.

But only Democratic states have voiced support for the new system “and there are not enough Democrat-controlled states for that to go into effect.”

As in 2000, when George W. Bush lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College, Republicans are unlikely to support any changes to the Electoral College process, he adds, “because it will be seen as an attempt to delegitimize Donald Trump.”

“It’s a very unique system, it’s certainly less democratic than other systems, but it’s also unique and it grows out of our history,” he continues. “The question is: Do we have the ability to change it? And the answer is probably not.”

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