When it seemed Mitt Romney might win the popular vote in 2012 but lose the Electoral College, Donald Trump called the system “a disaster for a democracy.”
He was right about that. The election four years later confirmed it.
He is the fifth president to have won only on account of an archaic mechanism designed by elites who didn’t believe the American people were sufficiently intelligent to choose their chief executive.
George Washington was scarcely back at Mount Vernon before the electors became mere functionaries for a mechanism stacked against the popular vote. It was designed in part to protect slavery.
Public confidence, the lifeblood of a democracy, is drained whenever a loser snatches victory from the person who earned it.
The Colorado Senate recently took a big step toward bringing presidential selection out of the 18th century into the 21st. It voted to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, binding Colorado’s electors to vote for the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide. If the House approves, as it has before, Colorado would join 11 other pledged states and the District of Columbia, putting the Compact only 89 electoral votes shy of 270, the magic number to put it into effect.
Legislatures have the power to do this. It’s the practical alternative to eliminating the Electoral College by constitutional amendment, an uphill climb requiring a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress and ratification by 38 states. The smallest states, which have excess weight in the Electoral College, would block it. The Compact, on the other hand, needs no approval from Congress and the participation of only a few more states.
Florida should be one of them. Our 29 electors would give the vitally important reform a significant boost. But the only proposal before the Legislature, SB 552 by Sen. Kevin J. Rader, D-Boca Raton, goes in the wrong direction. It would award one elector to the winner in each congressional district with two electors going to the statewide popular vote winner.
Maine and Nebraska do this now. If every state did, Barack Obama would have lost the presidency to Mitt Romney in 2012 despite a 5 million vote lead nationwide.
In 2008, Republicans considered trying to impose districting on deep-blue California through its easily manipulated initiative system. That would have made it difficult for any Democrat to win the presidency in the foreseeable future.
Voting by districts has an inherent Republican bias, owing to the fact that Democrats tend to concentrate in urban areas, while Republican voters are distributed more evenly throughout the country. That’s without gerrymandering in the mix. Moving to choose electors by district would encourage even more of it. Presidential races would be predetermined like most seats in the House of Representatives. Last year’s blue wave was an exception.
It may be a challenge to persuade Republican politicians to endorse reform. They have won every electoral dysfunction since the birth of their party. But that isn’t guaranteed. A shift of just 60,000 votes in Ohio would have elected John Kerry in 2004 despite President George W. Bush having more votes nationwide.
It isn’t difficult to imagine a future election, if not next year, in which a moderate Republican almost wins California and New York and has a popular majority but loses the electoral vote.
What’s wrong with the present system goes deeper than party. That’s true also of voting by districts, which is not a fair or reliable substitute for the national popular vote.
Another major liability is that the present system treats most voters — those living everywhere but in 10 or so “battleground” states — as unworthy of attention. There is no incentive for a Republican to troll for votes in California or New York, or for a Democrat to appeal to Texas. In 2016, thirty-eight states saw practically no campaign activity. It took place almost entirely in the 12 “battleground” states. Fewer voters went to the polls where their votes were taken for granted.
Voting by districts would do little to change that because so few of them are competitive. The Interstate Compact, on the other hand, is designed to compel candidates to appeal for votes everywhere. It puts the whole nation into play.