Eliminating the Electoral College Has Long Been a Partisan Issue…And It Isn’t Just About Eliminating the Electoral College

At a CNN town hall earlier this week, Massachusetts Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren called for the abolition of the Electoral College. In the two days since, many others have weighed in.

After winning the popular vote and losing the Electoral College in two of the last five presidential elections, it’s not hard to imagine why Democrats would be opposed to the current electoral system. But the thing is, abolishing the Electoral College was a talking point before November 7, 2000 — the idea has been floated around for decades.

Before going into the polling data, I want to make clear that this post’s goal is not to lay out the pros and cons of the electoral college; enough people have done that already. Instead, think of this as a trip through time, exploring the recent history of the Electoral College debate and parsing out why it’s become the issue it is today. Let’s begin. 

Interestingly, the first big flash point for abolishing the Electoral College came in the wake of the 1968 election. After a controversial result, in which Richard Nixon won 56% of electors with only 43% of the popular vote, Democrats in both chambers of Congress pushed for a Constitutional amendment that would remove the Electoral College altogether. The legislation’s sponsors, Emanuel Celler (Rep., NY) and Birch Bayh (Sen., IN), hoped to alleviate concerns that the Electoral College didn’t reflect true public support.

This Bayh-Celler amendment garnered significant momentum, with even president Richard Nixon, a Republican, voicing support. Public opinion polling showed a similar story, divorced of party — around this time, Gallup saw an increase in Americans who approved of its repeal, going from 58% to 80%.

Despite ostensible support from both sides, hindsight indicates that the Bayh-Celler amendment’s downfall was largely the doing of Republicans: Nixon refused to double-down on his initial approval, failing to convince many GOP Senators to vote in affirmation. In the end, the bill died in the Senate by about twelve votes, and nearly half a century later, it has been considered the last serious challenge to the Electoral College.

Bayh went on to spend the rest of his time in office trying to reintroduce similar legislation, to no avail. And after a string of convincing victories in both the Electoral College and popular vote, the debate against this system started to die down. That is, of course, until George W. Bush’s victory in 2000.

Winning the Electoral College over Al Gore by only 5 votes and losing the popular vote by over half a million, this outcome reinvigorated discourse, and this time, there was an even starker party divide.

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What changed? Well, again, it makes sense that Democrats would be displeased with a system that just cost their candidate the presidency. Yet, even with Barack Obama winning in two subsequent elections, Democratic support has remained steadfastly against the Electoral College. Look at Gallup’s trends over time:

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With this in mind, I’m willing to wager that there’s something deeper going on here. It’s no secret that America has become increasingly more partisan, and the debate over the Electoral College is just one of many examples. But it encompasses so much more than, “here’s how we pick the president.”

For proof, look no further than Donald Trump’s response to Elizabeth Warren:

“It’s like training for the 100 yard dash vs. a marathon. The brilliance of the Electoral College is that you must go to many States to win. With the Popular Vote, you go to just the large States – the Cities would end up running the Country. Smaller States & the entire Midwest would end up losing all power – & we can’t let that happen.”

Here, Trump references a fear that he played up in his campaign — large cities are launching a mutiny on America, and his base will pay for it.

Warren, on the other hand, centered her rhetoric around the argument that “every vote matters,” hearkening back to the now-popular Democratic ideals of absolute equality and representation.

Thus, over the past few decades, the motivations behind discussing the Electoral College have shifted substantially: while Celler and Bayh seemed to earnestly advocate for a more representative election system, today’s politicians use the Electoral College to subtly (or not-so-subtly) introduce and push a larger array of issues. This shift has in turn left its mark on the electorate, who may see the Electoral College as a conduit for the topics their elected officials deem important.

In a true twist of irony, it might no longer be about voters using the Electoral College to express their opinions to politicians; it’s about politicians using the Electoral College to express their opinions to voters.

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