It's time to kill the Electoral College

Even Republicans might agree — one day

A voter casts his ballot.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Donald Trump's collected tweets on the subject of the Electoral College are a work of transcendent numbskullery.

"If the election were based on total popular vote I would have campaigned in N.Y., Florida, and California, and won even bigger and more easily," he tweeted on Tuesday morning, perhaps realizing that losing the popular vote raises questions about the legitimacy of his presidency, let alone any "mandate" he might have. "The Electoral College is actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play. Campaigning is much different!" he tweeted six minutes later.

Besides being patently false in many ways — Trump did campaign in Florida, perhaps more than any other state — these two tweets were also also noticeably discordant with two earlier ones. In 2012, when he was briefly under the impression that Mitt Romney would be in exactly the position Clinton is now, Trump was outraged. "We can't let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!" and "This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!"

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So there you have it: two completely different opinions of the Electoral College, courtesy of America's president-elect. But what should 2016 really make us think about the Electoral College?

First, the basic facts. Trump won 306 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton's 232, despite the fact that as of the latest counts (California's results are still coming in), Clinton leads by a million votes. In fact, Trump has exactly 47 percent of the vote and falling. Four years ago, Mitt Romney got 47.15 percent and lost.

We can't know exactly what would have happened if every vote mattered, but what we do know is that in the current system the candidates have zero incentive to campaign anywhere but the dozen or so swing states. Yet it's the small conservative states that hold the Electoral College most dear, because it magnifies their influence. The point is not to have your voice heard or win the attention of candidates, but to make it more likely that Republicans win.

Which means that it would be almost impossible to reverse the Electoral College by means of constitutional amendment, which requires the assent of three-fourths of the states, and is itself therefore even more anti-democratic, and anti-Democratic, than the Electoral College itself. In that process, Wyoming's 600,000 residents get the same vote as California's 40 million, and they aren't going to let all those liberals make them even less relevant to presidential elections than they are now.

Though the truth is that they'd be much more relevant. If every vote actually counted, candidates would have an incentive to campaign in places where they're both losing and winning. A trip to Wyoming might be a good way for a Republican to run up the score, or for a Democrat to squeeze out a few more votes. They might not have time to campaign everywhere, but they could campaign anywhere.

For now though, the small conservative states wouldn't consider giving up the Electoral College. But there is a scenario under which at least some of them might decide that it's an abomination, one suggested by Trump's 2012 tweets: If it cost Republicans the White House.

And that might happen. Among the few states where Hillary Clinton performed better relative to Trump than Obama did relative to Romney were Georgia, Arizona, and Texas. Changing demographics, particularly increasing numbers of minority voters, will turn these formerly red states into swing purple states very soon, if not in four years than possibly in eight.

There is another work-around to the Electoral College, known as the National Popular Vote. This idea utilizes the fact that the Constitution gives each state permission to allot its electors any way it pleases. States that join in make a pledge to allot their electoral vote to whoever wins the national popular vote. Once you have states that combine to exceed 270 electoral votes, the measure can take effect and then the popular vote winner will automatically win.

As of now, 11 states and the District of Columbia with 165 combined electoral votes have passed the NPV. But they're all liberal states, and there aren't many more that seem eager to join in (you can learn more on the NPV's website, which seems to have been cut and pasted from someone's Geocities page circa 1997). So until it starts hurting Republicans, we're stuck with the Electoral College.

That shouldn't stop Democrats from reminding everyone as often as possible that more Americans selected Hillary Clinton to lead them, even if Donald Trump is going to be the president. It's just one more reason the rest of the world is looking at us and thinking we're nuts. And that might just lay the groundwork to send the Electoral College to the grave where it belongs.

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