America inaugurates Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. president Friday. Eager to understand the businessman’s unlikely ascension, approximately 500 Bay Area residents convened at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills last week for some historical context about the electoral system that made his presidency possible.
The League of Women Voters of Palo Alto sponsored the Jan. 11 event, a presentation by historian Jack Rakove titled “Can We Ever Get Rid of the Electoral College?” League member Diane Rolfe set the scene for Rakove’s standing-room-only audience.
“This large, overflowing crowd – we are honored – is a sign of the community dedicated to our democracy and civic engagement, a community that wants to strengthen our nation and our government and the constitution so we can have a government that is truly for and by the people: one person, one vote,” Rolfe said.
Like Rolfe, Rakove’s not a fan of the Electoral College, the mechanism that secured Trump the presidency even though opponent Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. The Stanford University professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author advocates for abolishing the system in favor of a national popular vote.
“This is not a cry of desperation, but it is an appeal for serious political discussion,” he said before launching into a history lesson.
Back in 1787, the framers of the U.S. Constitution chose the Electoral College as a compromise between election by will of the public and election by “electors,” political insiders they considered better informed.
Contrary to popular belief, the framers did not fear demagoguery but local biases, Rakove said.
“It’s the idea that a popular election would just be ineffective,” he said. “The most it could do would be to identify a subset of favorite son candidates, and then you’d have to come up with some contingent form of election.”
Under the Electoral College system, Americans don’t actually cast a vote for a presidential candidate but for electors who do so for them. The 538 available electoral votes up for grabs are divided based on congressional delegation: Each state gets two votes (one for each of its two U.S. senators) plus a single vote for each of its House of Representatives members (determined by state population). Populous California has the most electoral votes with 55. Seven states and Washington, D.C., have the fewest electoral votes, three.
With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, states operate on a winner-take-all basis, meaning the candidate with the most popular votes in that state wins all the state’s electoral votes. In the 2016 election, Clinton earned nearly 3 million more popular votes than Trump, but she lost the presidency because he received more electoral votes, 306 compared with 232.
Critics of the Electoral College say it allows for overrepresentation of small-population states due to the “senatorial bump” allowing two Senate-based electoral votes despite a state’s population.
Smaller states do not need or warrant added protections, and a vote should count the same no matter where it is cast, Rakove said.
“The population of the states in which we live has no value in explaining our political preferences, our political desires or how we’re going to vote,” he said. “We vote on the basis of the interests, the opinions and the passions that we feel individually.”
A national popular election would incentivize candidates to mobilize voters all over the country, including those who live in nonbattleground states like California and therefore consider their electors’ choice a foregone conclusion, Rakove said.
A path forward
There are popular-vote proponents who support a pact among states to commit electors to whomever wins the popular vote, but Rakove believes such “backdoor” strategies are destined for failure. The most feasible – and legitimate – route to abolishing the Electoral College is a constitutional amendment, which would require a two-thirds approval vote by both congressional houses and three-quarters approval of the states.
Yes, an amendment is a laborious, uphill process smaller states might fight, but pursuing the change is worth discussing and advancing nonetheless, he said.
“Being a historian, I spend most of my waking hours in the past, but I do think of the future, and I know we can’t change it unless we decide that we want to act on it,” Rakove said.
Among Rakove’s 500 or so audience members was Los Altos Hills Planning Commission Chairwoman Kavita Tankha. Tankha said she considered the speech a “good first-time engagement” and a valuable learning experience before any formal movement is mobilized. She’s not yet convinced of the best solution, but she appreciated the dialogue.
“I’d like to see something that works for the country as a whole,” she said.
For more information on the Electoral College, visit archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college.