Like many of you, I have never before given so much thought to the Electoral College . . . like never. Before November 9, the Electoral College was for me an unquestioned reality. To the extent that I thought about it at all, I assumed that we have the system we do—with 48 states giving all electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in the state and with Nebraska and Maine as unexplained anomalies—because of something in the Constitution that I had forgotten (there is a lot in the Constitution that I either never knew or forgot in the years since high school, so this was a somewhat plausible hypothesis). But no. As we all now know, the Constitution leaves it to the states to determine how to allocate their electoral votes, and the Twelfth Amendment (ratified 1804), while essentially enshrining the two-party system in American politics, continued to leave it to the states to decide how to allocate the electoral votes.
My friend Jeff, who has forgotten more about the Twelfth Amendment than I have ever known, lent me one of his college history textbooks, The Electoral College Primer, published in 1996, and in the coming weeks, I’ll be summarizing and responding to chapters from that book for a historical view and to some current proposals about the Electoral College for a contemporary view, but for today, I want to spend some time thinking not about the historical decisions that made the Electoral College what it is today and not about politically possible solutions to the problem, but about ideas and ideals that should inform any possible reforms.
- Every state should matter. This is why we have the Electoral College in the first place. Bitter divisions between more and less populous states about representation in Congress were salved by the Connecticut Compromise, which allocated seats to one house of Congress based on population and to the other house based on equal representation for each state. Near the end of their work on the Constitution, the framers decided to use this basic idea to inform the creation of what would come to be called the Electoral College. If the United States were to move to a strictly popular-vote-based presidential election, then small and rural states would cease to matter in the election, and this would go against the still-important principles that informed the work of the framers of the Constitution in creating a workable federation of states.
- Every voter should matter. At the moment, my ideal for a new way of allocating electors is a constitutional amendment that would require all states to allocate electoral votes as a proportion of the popular vote in the state. If this amendment were passed, then suddenly my Democratic votes in Indiana, where I live now, or in Kansas, where I lived previously, would become relevant in a way they never have been. Republican voters in California and New York would potentially play a role in electing a Republican president. This would entirely alter the way presidential candidates approach their campaigns, because suddenly more voters would be important. The implications would be far reaching. The two major political parties have learned how to work the system we have now, and they would resist a new system that would upend their current methods and require radical revisions of strategy. But the fact that neither party is likely to support this idea doesn’t make it a bad idea.
This site offers an interactive way of seeing how the electoral votes would have changed for the 2012 election based on different proposals that have been made for reform of the Electoral College. (They report that it will take several months to provide the same options for the 2016 election.)
Unfortunately, not ideals but expediency and selfishness often inform politics. (I know, I know, shocking!) So Republicans, with their ongoing efforts to restrict voting in numerous states, have demonstrated a lack of valuing every voter. States that are firmly, consistently either blue or red are unlikely to support a constitutional amendment that would lose them some of the electoral votes they have counted on. The same site allows you to run the exercise for “Optimal Republican” and “Optimal Democrat,” and this is instructive for thinking about why a constitutional amendment would be a good idea. Here are the ways that states should allocate electoral votes in order to optimally favor Republicans:
In 2012, that would have led to these changes in the election:
And here is how states should allocate the votes for optimal results for the Democratic Party:
This “optimal Democrat” set of statewide elector practices would have yielded these votes in 2012:
Above maps and vote totals all from www.270towin.com.
It may be asking too much to wish that our elected officials would behave as statesmen and stateswomen instead of politicians, but the variance in those two maps from 270towin.com suggests that a consistent national system that preserves certain core principles of our federation and of democracy would be better for both the federation and the democracy than allowing whatever party is in power in each particular state to stack the deck in a way that favors their party. Certainly, however, our politicians will continue to behave as politicians as long as the people expect no better.