Last week I discussed why the Electoral College will not be abolished, despite the growing demand among Democrats for its demise: Enough states are overrepresented in the Electoral College to block the passing of the constitutional amendment required to eliminate it.
But there are other means which don’t require amending the Constitution to be adopted and, if implemented, could conceivably make presidential elections more democratic by increasing the probability that the winner of the electoral vote is also the winner of the popular vote. We’ll look at two of them and explain why they probably won’t be adopted either, and why they might not work even if they were.
One proposal is to choose presidential electors and set the electoral vote by congressional district, as is currently done in Maine and Nebraska. In each of these states a presidential candidate gets one vote for each district he or she carries, plus two additional votes for carrying the state. For example, in 2016, Donald Trump carried one of Maine’s two congressional districts, while Hillary Clinton carried the other district and won a statewide majority of the vote as well. Therefore Trump won one electoral vote to Clinton’s three. In Nebraska, Trump won the majority of the vote in each of the state’s three congressional district, meaning he won a majority of the statewide vote, yielding him all five of the state’s electoral vote.
But it’s unlikely that this system will be adopted any time soon by any of the other forty-eight states, which all use the winner-take-all method of awarding the electoral vote. In Texas, for example, Donald Trump won about 52% of the popular vote, yielding him all 38 of the state’s electoral vote. Texas’s current House delegation includes 23 Republicans and 13 Democrats. If each district represented by a Democrat were to support the Democratic presidential nominee, that nominee could win 13 electoral votes, leaving the Republican presidential nominee with only 25 electoral votes, rather than the 38 votes he might win under the winner-take-all system. It’s safe to assume that the Republican-dominated Texas legislature is no more willing to abandon winner-take-all, thereby giving the Democrats the chance to win more electoral votes, than California’s Democratic legislature would abandon winner-take-all to give the Republicans a chance of winning electoral votes in this most reliable of blue states (California sends 7 Republicans to the House, along with 46 Democrats, and 2 Democrats to the Senate).
Moreover, even if this system were to be adopted, it’s not guaranteed to work as intended. A presidential nominee who carried a larger number of Congressional districts by smaller margins could still defeat a nominee who won fewer districts by greater margins, as did Trump in 2016.
Currently Democrats are advocating that states adopt the National Popular Vote bill, which would commit each adopting state to award its electoral votes to whomever won the national popular vote, regardless of who won the state popular vote. The requirement would go into effect when the combined electoral vote of the adopting states reached or exceeded 270—the minimum majority of the electoral vote required to officially choose the president. Should the combined electoral vote be at least 270, and should all states adopting the National Popular Vote bill honor its terms, then the winner of the popular vote would be guaranteed the presidency.
But the likelihood of enough states adopting the National Popular Vote bill any time soon is small. To date, it’s been adopted by states whose total electoral vote is only 186. Most are predictably blue, reflecting the Democrats’ current antipathy towards the Electoral College. Most of the holdout states, including Texas, are predictably red.
And could the states’ actually be held to the terms of the National Popular Vote bill? Would they want to be held to those terms? Suppose, for example, that supporters of the National Popular Vote bill were somehow able to win its adoption by enough holdout states to go into effect for the 2020 election. Suppose President Trump were to win the 2020 popular vote. Would deep blue states such as California, which Trump cannot possibly otherwise carry, actually consent to award this reddest of Presidents their electoral votes?
Given the improbability of the adoption of the National Popular Vote bill, and the possibility of problems in its implementation should it be adopted anyway, the best advice that can be given to the parties and their presidential nominees is to improve their strategies and their brands. The fact that the Democrats could win the popular vote while losing the electoral vote in 2016 reflects the inept strategy of the Clinton campaign, which failed to focus enough on battleground, or purple, states, while President Trump understood that to campaign in such states as Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—all of which he carried—was the key to victory.
But the fact that the Republican presidential nominee has won the popular vote in only one out of the last seven presidential elections shows its brand is in great need of improvement. The Republicans simply can’t afford to rely on the historical quirks of the Electoral College to guarantee it the presidency forever. True, the Republicans won each of the four elections in which one candidate won the popular vote and the other the electoral vote. But in 44 of the last 48 presidential elections, the winner of the popular vote also won the electoral vote, and the White House as well. As long as the GOP can’t win the popular vote, its long run chances for retaining the presidency are small.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.