A few days ago, Heather Cox Richardson–a historian who writes Substack’s popular “Letters from an American”–reported on several aspects of the Trump coup effort. Among the various efforts she itemized was the following
Over the past several days, news has broken that lawmakers or partisan officials in various states forged documents claiming that Trump won the 2020 election. This links them to the insurrection; as conservative editor Bill Kristol of The Bulwark notes, false electoral counts were part of Trump’s plan to get then–Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to count a number of Biden’s electoral votes on the grounds that the states had sent in conflicting ballots.
Interestingly, on December 17, 2021, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity that in four states there were an “alternate slate of electors voted upon that Congress will decide in January.” McEnany talked to the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol yesterday.
Over the past few election cycles, the history and operation of the Electoral College has come under increasing scrutiny. And the more closely this odd element of our electoral process is examined, the more anti-democratic and positively dangerous it looks.
Whether, as several constitutional scholars insist, the Electoral College was a concession to the slave states, or as its defenders contend, it was an effort to give added electoral heft to smaller states–it It currently undermines democracy and–as Richardson’s report illustrates–facilitates the efforts of those who would overturn the will of American voters.
Structurally, there is a great deal wrong with the Electoral College. For one thing, it substantially advantages white rural voters. Research suggests that–thanks to the current operation of the College– every rural vote is worth one and a third of every urban vote. Small states already have a significant advantage by virtue of the fact that every state–no matter how thinly or densely populated–has two Senators.
No other advanced democracy in the world uses anything like the Electoral College (and as political scientists have noted, there are good reasons for that). And for those who fashion themselves as “originalists,” it’s worth pointing out that our current version of the Electoral College is dramatically different from the mechanism as it was originally conceived and even as it was later amended.
According to law professor Edward Foley, who wrote a book on the subject, the changes made to the College by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804 rested on the assumption that the candidate who won a majority of the popular vote would be elected. Those who crafted the Amendment failed to foresee the emergence of third party candidates whose presence on the ballot often means that the winner of a given state doesn’t win a majority, but a plurality of the vote.
These issues aside, the main problem with the Electoral College today isn’t even the undemocratic and disproportionate power it gives rural voters and smaller states. It’s the statewide winner-take-all laws, under which states award all their electors to the candidate with the most popular votes in their state– erasing all the voters in that state who didn’t vote for the winning candidate.
Forty-eight states have winner-take-all rules. As a result, most are “safe” for one party. The only states that really matter in any given federal election are “battleground” states — especially bigger ones like Florida and Pennsylvania, where a swing of a few thousand or even a few hundred votes can shift the entire pot of electors from one candidate to the other.
Winner-take-all has an even more pernicious effect–it disincentivizes voting by people who are in their state’s political minority. If your state is red and you are blue, or vice-versa, it’s easy to convince yourself your Presidential vote is meaningless, because it is.
Winner take all rules are why Democratic votes for President simply don’t count in Indiana and Republican votes for President don’t count in New York. Even if the margin is incredibly thin, the candidate who comes out on top gets all of that state’s electoral votes. If the votes were apportioned instead—if a winner of 51% of the popular vote got 51% of the electoral vote, and the candidate who got 49% got 49%, it wouldn’t just be fairer. It would encourage voters who support the “other” party in reliably red or blue states to vote, because–suddenly– that vote would count.
Joe Biden had to win the popular vote by five percentage points or more — by more than seven million votes — to insure his win in the 2020 election. That’s not only an unfair and undemocratic burden–it’s insane.
Now we learn that–in addition to its multiple anti-democratic effects–the College facilitates cheating. It really needs to go.