Let’s eliminate the power of the Electoral College
By Martin A. Dyckman • Guest Columnist
Americans are asking why we now have a president whom they wouldn’t trust to manage their finances, teach their children or date their daughters. The answer, of course, is the Electoral College, which was created mainly to protect us from just such a person as Donald Trump.
That’s usually said in a resigned tone of voice, as if there’s nothing that can be done to prevent another such dysfunction. In fact, the Electoral College can be reduced to a figurehead formality in an amazingly simple way. That’s by state legislatures enacting a compact to cast their electoral votes for whichever candidate wins the popular vote nationwide. It’s alive, if not well, in North Carolina in the form of Senate Bill 440. I’ll get back to that.
The Founders assumed that elected surrogates would make a wiser choice than the people themselves. The Electoral College, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “affords a moral certainty that the office of President will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” What he called “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” wouldn’t cut it.
That worked as intended so long as everyone’s intent was George Washington, but it wasn’t long before the electors became rubber stamps, faceless functionaries executing the will of their states’ voters. Soon after, in 1824, Andrew Jackson won a 41.3 percent popular vote plurality but not enough electors to keep the decision out of the House of Representatives, which gave the presidency to runner-up John Quincy Adams. Jackson took his revenge four years later.
The electoral outcome has defied the popular vote four times since — for Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 (ousted President Grover Cleveland scored his comeback four years later), George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016. In each previous instance, it could be rationalized that the winner was at least a competent politician whose mental fitness and character were not in doubt. But there is no such silver lining for what the Electoral College delivered last year. It failed too badly to be trusted ever again.
SB 440, introduced by Sens. Jay Chadhuri, D-Wake, and Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg, would put North Carolina into the national popular vote compact. Curiously, there’s no House companion. There needs to be.
The national popular vote compact has been ratified by 10 states and the District of Columbia, accounting for 165 of the 270 electoral votes that would put it into effect. But the remaining 105 would have to come mainly from Republican-ruled states like North Carolina, where SB 440 reposes in the Senate Rules Committee. That’s where Senate boss Phil Berger sends bills to die.
His attitude toward the bill may owe to the fact that every electoral dysfunction since Jackson has benefited the Republicans. If that’s his objection, it’s a short-sighted one. The system has come close to hurting his party on several occasions. In 1968 a shift of only 77,724 votes in Missouri and Illinois would have sent the Nixon-Humphrey race into the House of Representatives, where Democrats controlled a majority of the delegations and George Wallace hoped to cut a deal to end desegregation. In 2004, a shift of fewer than 60,000 votes in just one state, Ohio, would have ousted Bush despite his national lead of some 3 million votes. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a competent Republican candidate runs well enough in California, New York and Massachusetts to lead in the popular vote nationwide while still losing enough key states to be denied the presidency.
It isn’t healthy for a nation that regards itself as a democracy to suffer elections in which the loser wins. It erodes the people’s respect and trust.
The Electoral College is harmful even when the popular vote winner wins the electoral vote. If you’re a Republican in California, New York or Massachusetts or a Democrat in Texas, Tennessee, or South Carolina, your vote won’t matter. That’s true in most of the other states as well. Those seen as safely red or blue are taken for granted while the campaigns lavish all their attention on the few where the votes look to be close.
Some 94 percent of all 2016 campaign events were in only 12 states with 30 percent of the population, and nearly six out of 1 were in Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“The nation as a whole is not going to elect the next president. Twelve states are,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said in 2015 before he quit the race.
It would be too complicated mathematically to try to provide for proportional representation in the Electoral College. That or a simple direct popular vote without retaining the Electoral College machinery would face the daunting challenge of getting a constitutional amendment past two-thirds of each house of Congress and 38 of the 50 states. The on-line petitions calling for an amendment are pointless except as fund-raisers for their sponsors.
The national popular vote compact is the only easy solution and the best one.
Candidates would need to look for votes everywhere and tailor their messages more to the great majority of moderate voters than to their liberal or conservative core constituencies. That would engage many more voters and position the winners to govern from the center rather than from either extreme. The policy consequences would be substantial.
So, Phil Berger, here’s something to consider from people on your side of the aisle:
“This is a state rights issue, a true federalist solution to the current problem where four out of five Americans are ignored by presidential candidates. Every person — in every state — has the right to decide who is elected President …
“‘Battleground’ states receive seven percent more federal grants than ‘spectator’ states, twice as many presidential disaster declarations, more Superfund enforcement exemptions, and more No Child Left Behind law exemptions. Because of the disproportionate vote of the ‘swing states,’ federal policy decisions have been distorted in ways that grow the size of the federal government. The largest government entitlement since the Great Society was Medicare Part D, designed to win the large senior voting population in Florida.”
That’s from a statement signed by eight former chairs of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is really, really conservative. One of those former chairs is Harold Brubaker of North Carolina, who led ALEC in 2004.
He’s an important lobbyist in Raleigh now. Sen. Berger should talk to him.