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What It Would (Really) Take to Abolish the Electoral College

Rolling Stone — Ryan Bort

In 2016, Americans cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton by a margin of close to three million votes. Donald Trump became president, though, because of the Electoral College, which he won 304-227. The system is ostensibly in place to ensure that nation’s rural areas have a voice in national elections, but as a larger and larger percentage of Americans settle in urban areas, the Electoral College is becoming more and more outdated. Though the issue is a nonstarter for Republicans, who have benefitted from the disproportionate influence the system gives to rural America, several Democrats are beginning to take the prospect of abolishing it seriously.

On Monday night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) proposed the idea at a CNN town hall in Jackson, Mississippi. “I believe we need a Constitutional amendment that protects the right to vote for every American citizen and to make sure that vote gets counted,” she said, arguing that laws that suppress the votes of minorities need to be repealed. “We need to make sure that every vote counts,” she added. “Come the general election, presidential candidates don’t come to places like Mississippi. They also don’t come to places like California and Massachusetts. We’re not the battleground states. My view is that every vote matters. The way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting and that means getting rid of the Electoral College.”

The morning after Warren’s town hall, the Washington Post published an interview with Pete Buttigieg, whose 2020 star has risen in recent weeks. “It’s gotta go,” the South Bend, Indiana, mayor said of the Electoral College. “We need a national popular vote. It would be reassuring from the perspective of believing we’re a democracy. But I also think it would be highly encouraging of voter participation on the national level.”

At an event in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Beto O’Rourke was asked what he thought of the idea. “I think there’s a lot to that,” he said. “You had an election in 2016 where the loser got three million more votes than the victor. It puts some states out of play altogether. They don’t feel like their votes really count. If we really want every person to vote and want to give them every reason to vote, we have to make sure their votes count and go to the candidate of their choosing. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that.”

Regardless of how much wisdom exists in the idea to abolish the Electoral College and decide presidential elections on, you know, which candidate receives the most votes, the move would require a constitutional amendment, which is rather tough to pass. To do so, two-thirds of both the Senate and House of Representatives would need to support the change, as would 38 of the 50 states. This isn’t likely to happen even if Democrats were to control both houses of Congress, as Republicans have railed against the idea at every turn. “The desire to abolish the Electoral College is driven by the idea Democrats want rural America to go away politically,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted in response to Warren’s town hall. “#ElectoralCollege was work of genius by founders,” added Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). “It requires candidates for President to earn votes from various parts of country. And it makes sure interests of less populated areas aren’t ignored at the expense of densely populated areas.”

Absent a Constitutional amendment, however, there’s something called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. If a state signs onto the NPVIC, it pledges to allocate all of its Electoral College votes to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote. The compact takes effect only after the total electoral college votes of the states who sign on surpasses 270, the minimum needed to win the election. If that happens, it would ensure that whichever candidate wins the national popular vote would also win the Electoral College.

On Friday, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a bill entering the state into the compact, joining other solidly blue states like California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia. Those states and D.C. represent 181 Electoral College votes, which means several red states would need to get on board before the NPVIC would have any chance of taking effect. Even if that were to happen, it would likely be challenged in the courts, and legal scholars disagree over whether the NPVIC is actually Constitutional. This doesn’t mean the issue isn’t worth pursuing, as Buttigieg explained to the Post. “It wouldn’t be easy to do overnight, but it would also have the function of reminding everybody that structural reforms are an option, and encouraging us to have that level of intellectual ambition,” he said.

As is the case with many of the issues proposed by Democrats and maligned by Republicans, most Americans support the idea of using the popular vote to decide elections. A 2018 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 65 percent of Americans believe the national popular vote should decide presidential elections, compared to 32 percent who still believe in the Electoral College.

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