Since election night almost five weeks ago, I’ve been giving some thought about the Electoral College – and not just because Donald Trump received the majority of electoral votes while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of nearly 3 million. Let’s be clear, Donald Trump won the presidency by the rules that exist.
As many people now know, this was the fifth time in United States history that a president was elected despite having lost the popular vote. Two of these five anomalies have occurred in the last five elections. This has caused an outcry that the Electoral College is unfair because in a democracy, the person getting the most votes should be elected.
Should we abandon the Electoral College and go to a system where the winner of the nationwide popular vote becomes president? It’s important to examine the two basic reasons that our founders created the Electoral College system. First, they wanted to give the small states a voice as active participants in electing the president. Under a popular-vote system, the fear was that the small states would be all but ignored by the campaign and become irrelevant simply because of their size.
Second, the founders believed that ordinary citizens couldn’t learn enough about the candidates and their positions to make a reasonable judgment, so they would vote for electors, who were involved in the political process, to make well-informed decisions in voting for the best candidate.
But neither of these arguments is persuasive today. With the Electoral College creating a system where only “battleground states” are up for grabs, most small states are ignored because they are either solidly red (e.g. Wyoming, Montana), or solidly blue (e.g. Hawaii, Delaware.) Additionally, today’s technology means ordinary citizens can get information about the candidates from all forms of social media, 24-hour cable-news networks and televised presidential debates.
The arguments for switching to the popular vote seem to be more persuasive. First, it would rectify the unfairness of small states having more electoral votes per population than big states. For example, California with 55 electoral votes has one elector for every 705,000 people. On the other hand, Wyoming, with three electoral votes has one elector for every 194,000 people. If California had the same proportion of electors as Wyoming does, it would have more than 190 electoral votes.
Perhaps the best argument for going to a popular-vote system is that it would force candidates to campaign nationally instead of confining themselves to 10 or 11 swing states. They would be forced to campaign in states like California, New York and Texas, which, despite having a high number of electoral votes, are largely ignored, because the first two are solidly blue, and the third is solidly red.
On balance, I’d prefer to have the winner of our presidential elections determined by the popular vote. However, there is a significant drawback to this. Imagine in the last election if Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a total of 49,000 votes nationwide. There would be demand for a recall in virtually every precinct in America, meaning battalions of lawyers, endless vote recounts, arguments in court. We wouldn’t know who the president was until March or April of the following year.
I believe we can get the best of both systems if we kept the Electoral College, but mandated each state to award its electors by the proportion of the popular vote received in that state. In Pennsylvania, Donald Trump would have received 10.0 electoral votes, Hillary Clinton 9.8, Gary Johnson 1.5 and Jill Stein .5. The popular vote would be important, but the Electoral College would remain with its benefits, and the possibility of a nationwide recount would be eliminated.
As logical as this proposed system might sound, there is one problem with it. The electoral-vote distribution for the 2016 Presidential election was Trump 306, Clinton 232. Under my proposal, Hillary Clinton would have received 257 electoral votes, Donald Trump 251, Gary Johnson 18 and Jill Stein 6. That means that no one would get the constitutionally mandated majority, or 270 electoral votes, and the election would be sent to the House of Representatives.
Having the House of Representatives determine who will be president is worse than either the current Electoral College system or direct popular-vote system. To keep my proposed system, we would have to do away with the constitutional requirement that the winner has to get more than 50 percent of the electoral votes and just awards the presidency to the person who got the highest total. In other words, the winner would be decided by a plurality, not a majority.
This idea would require changing the constitution. That is a difficult thing to do and a slow, cumbersome process, but worth it. There have been 700 bills introduced in the Congress to end or reform the Electoral College. It’s time for number 701.
Ed Rendell is a former governor of Pennsylvania and former mayor of Philadelphia. Samantha Kochman, a University of Pennsylvania student, contributed to this column.