We can’t abolish the Electoral College, so let’s fix it

The best way to reform and repair the way presidents are elected is to either abolish the Electoral College or change it so that every vote will count.

Abolition’s not going to happen as long as the system benefits either Democrats or Republicans but if this relic of a bygone era can’t be eliminated, there is a fairer alternative that might appeal to both the popular vote and electoral college devotees.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden ran for president of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia and a very few other states in 2020 because they were too close to call in the polls.  They largely ignored the rest. This is no way for a democracy — or republic — to function.

So  let’s first dispose of the myth that because we are a republic and not a democracy, having every presidential vote count would somehow replace our republican form of government with something like mob rule.

The truth is we’re both a democracy and a republic or maybe a democratic republic or republican democracy.   Democracy is defined as “a system of government by the whole population or all members of a state, typically through elected representatives.”  A republic is “a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch.”

A pure democracy hasn’t existed anywhere since ancient Greece or maybe at the early New England town meetings where property owning men got together to make the town’s rules for as long as there was enough room for them in the Congregational Church. After that, they formed town councils and other legislative bodies and had their elected representatives make the laws.

The Electoral College has its roots in the Constitution but the system worked so badly in the 1800 election that Alexander Hamilton, one of its architects, drafted an amendment to fix it, the first of about 700 attempts to reform or abolish the Electoral College, according to the National Archives.

The original Electoral College had one purpose — to appease the smaller, Southern slave-holding states that feared the larger Northern states would dominate the nation and ultimately threaten slavery, which was vital to their economy.  They weren’t satisfied with having as many senators representing their interests as the larger states but they were  right about slavery being threatened.

The worst fears about the Electoral College were realized in 1876, the nation’s centennial, when a Northern Democrat, Samuel Tilden, won the popular vote but the electoral votes were tied due to a dispute over the vote in four southern states.  After a long debate, a Congressional committee voted to give the presidency to Republican Rutherford Hayes on two conditions. He would serve only one term and the post-Civil War federal oversight of the South — Reconstruction — would end.  

The corrupt bargain delayed true freedom for the slaves for another century and remnants of the post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow era are alive and well today.

Segregation also played a role in the 1968 election at the height of the civil rights era.  A third-party candidate, Alabaman George Wallace, had no illusions about becoming president but he figured he was popular enough in the South and a few other states to deny candidates Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

If that happened, Wallace would be able to deliver the electoral vote majority to the party that would agree to end federal integration efforts in return for the presidency.  

Wallace got only 14 percent of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes, but if he had received only 50,000 more votes in Tennessee and Humphrey got 90,000 more in Ohio, his plan would have worked.  

That was enough to scare both parties and there was suddenly bipartisan support for an amendment to abolish the Electoral College.  

With the support of President Nixon, the amendment easily passed in the House, 339 to 70.  But it died in Senate, where a filibuster led by the Southern Democrat Strom Thurmond kept the amendment from going to the states where it was expected to be ratified. 

Since then, two Republican presidents have been elected in this century by the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote, thereby making support for the electoral vote as popular among Republicans as it would be among Democrats if their candidates had won.

So, how about a more modest reform, like abolishing the winner takes all rule and awarding electoral votes proportionally, something like the enlightened states of Maine and Nebraska already do.  

If that reform had existed in November, 37% of California’s 55 electoral votes would have gone to loser Trump and 61% to winner Biden.  In Texas, winner Trump would have received 52% of the state’s electoral votes and loser Biden would have had 46%.  

In other words, every vote would have counted and candidates for president would have had to campaign all over the United States of America.  Something to think about. 


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

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