Time to resume our series on the Electoral College. Yes, we are still in a time of grieving and protest, and pandemic. But it might be useful to remind ourselves how important the 2020 presidential election will be. America is scheduled to vote in November.
You’ll remember that the Electoral College comes straight from the U.S. Constitution. In Part 1, I exaggerated, but only slightly, when I said of the Electoral College:
“You can’t get rid of it, and you can’t change it.”
Nothing is totally impossible.
Technically, you could get rid of the Electoral College, or change it, with a Constitutional amendment. Simple? No, amending the Constitution is hard. It requires ratification by three-fourths of the states.
You know how divided our national politics is right now? We’re not going to get 75 percent agreement on anything as big as a Constitutional amendment anytime soon.
Still, you might possibly modify operation of the Electoral College via state law. Article II, Section 1, gives the states broad authority over its appointed electors. In fact, that’s where the winner-take-all electoral vote comes from. It comes from state laws, and it might be changed by state laws.
The Founding Fathers didn’t plan on political parties, and they didn’t envision the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes.
But political parties sprang up almost immediately. And just as fast, state legislatures realized they could maximize the impact of their electoral vote by passing a law instructing ALL their electors to vote for the presidential candidate who wins the state’s popular vote. Even if that candidate wins by a whisker, he gets all the state’s electoral votes.
Today, the winner-take-all rule is questioned by many. Nonetheless, the advantages of winner-take-all were so obvious in the early days that each legislature passed a law, one by one. Since the 1830s, it has been nearly universal. If nearly every state uses winner-take-all and it’s lasted a long time, maybe it has advantages or benefits?
Maine (4 electoral votes) and Nebraska (5 electoral votes) have decided to use a slightly modified version. Both Maine and Nebraska award two votes to the statewide popular winner. And they award one vote to the winner in each of their congressional districts. (Maine has two districts and Nebraska has three.) Maine passed a law to lead the way in 1972, and Nebraska passed its law in 1996.
States are not keen on change
You don’t see the other 48 states rushing to join them. The rest of the states and the District of Columbia watched the interesting innovation by Maine and Nebraska. And decided to stick with straight winner-take-all. Perhaps there’s beauty in simplicity. Or maybe it’s comfort with the familiar. Or maybe even fear of the unknown? If it’s not broke, don’t fix it?
More recently, there was another bright idea. States would join an interstate compact agreeing to endorse the winner of the national popular vote. Each state would pass its own law, until enough states passed their own laws to put the agreement into effect. The idea attracted some interest. (You can read details of the interstate compact proposal in the comments below Part 1. And discussion about winner-take-all in comments below Part 2. If you have the patience. I don’t really recommend it.)
But remember, our nation is a bit divided at present? We have a hard time agreeing on anything? Enthusiasm for the interstate compact has run out of steam, in my opinion. It is far short of being passed by even half the states. Enough states are not going to change their laws, at least not before November 2020.
(At this moment, 15 states and the District of Columbia have passed the national popular vote interstate compact. Interestingly, all of them are BLUE states. Except Colorado, which is probably purple. Not a single RED state has passed it! Not a single Southern state, Great Plains state, or Rocky Mountain state, except Colorado. The way support for the interstate compact proposal breaks down starkly illustrates the national divide.)
Our nation will not always be as divided as it has become in recent years. Maybe? Well, probably. It’s hard to imagine right this moment, but someday we will once again be able to amend the Constitution or agree on unified state action.
Support for and opposition to the Electoral College could change after 2020 and before the 2024 election. The outcome of the 2020 election might change perceptions. And following the 2020 Census, reapportionment will change the number of votes some states have in the Electoral College. You can never predict the future.
Meanwhile, we live in 2020 and you have to play the game by the rules in the book.
The important thing, whether you support the Republican candidate or the Democratic candidate, is to win 270 votes in the Electoral College, using the rule book we have. The election is only five months away.
We will return to the task at hand, consideration of Electoral College arithmetic, state by state, in Part 4. I hope it will be more interesting than Part 3. Be there or be square.
— John Hayden