"How Trump Could Win Again, Even if He Loses. Two words: Electoral College", Jesse Wegman

Video by Tala Schlossberg and
transcript 0:00/7:39


Democracy is, at its core, about fair, equal representation — one person, one vote. But if you’re a voter in the United States, there’s a really good chance your vote doesn’t count the way you think it does. Why? Well, American democracy operates on a whole collection of cherished ideas and practices, but our system also includes some dusty old artifacts from its founding two centuries ago. Take the Electoral College, America’s system for picking the president. It’s complicated, outdated, unrepresentative — in a word, undemocratic. In 2016, Donald Trump won the White House by earning a majority of electoral votes, even though almost three million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t the first time a president won by losing or the second or even the fourth. And this year, who knows? I’ve spent the past few years obsessively analyzing the Electoral College, trying to understand the concerns of the founding fathers, doing the math from different elections. I wrote a whole book on the subject. What I learned is it doesn’t have to be this way. And the reasons people think we need to keep the Electoral College the way it is, they’re all wrong. Myth No. 1, that Democrats will win a popular vote every time. A lot of people don’t even want to talk about changing the Electoral College because of this idea. Republicans especially worry about tipping the balance away from their party. And sure, the last two times the Electoral College has awarded the White House to the popular-vote loser, it’s been to the Republican — Donald Trump in 2016 and George W. Bush in 2000. But don’t forget, Bush won the popular vote four years later by three million votes. In fact, let’s tally up all the votes cast for president between 1932 and 2008. That’s almost 1.5 billion votes. Sometimes one party does better for a few election cycles. But in the end, Republicans and Democrats are virtually tied. The point is, even accounting for demographic changes, neither party has a built-in advantage under a popular-vote system. Myth No. 2: The founders wanted it this way. And because they created it, it’s a sacred work of constitutional genius. That’s not true either. The founders fought like cats and dogs over how the president should be chosen. They disagreed so strongly that the final system wasn’t adopted until the last minute, thrown together by a few delegates in a side room. Many of them were unhappy with the results. Some of the most important framers, including James Madison and James Wilson, wanted to write a direct popular vote into the Constitution. Why did they lose? For one thing, slavery. Enslaved people couldn’t vote, but they were still counted toward the slave states’ representation in Congress. That meant more power for those states under an Electoral College system, and slave states didn’t want to give up that power. This is just one way the legacy of slavery still taints our politics today. But get this, the way the Electoral College actually functions today isn’t even enshrined in the Constitution. The way it gets implemented is the result of dozens of state laws, which evolved over time as the country settled into a two-party system. In other words, the Electoral College isn’t sacred, and there’s no reason we can’t change how it works today. And finally, Myth 3: The Electoral College protects small states. You may have heard this one in high school. Without the Electoral College, big states like California and New York would dominate elections. The voices of small states, like Rhode Island and Wyoming, would be drowned out. But the reality is, right now neither the small states nor the big ones have the voice they should. Which states do matter? Places like Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan. These aren’t small states. They’re swing states. Candidates focus on swing states because they actually have a chance of flipping them and winning a bucket of electoral votes. It’s no wonder the candidates fixate on issues that matter to specific groups of voters in swing states, like fracking in Pennsylvania — “This is my 13th visit.” — or prescription drug benefits in Florida. “Including prescription drug benefits and all seniors at every income level.” But they spend almost no time talking about issues that matter to millions of voters elsewhere, like public transportation in New York or climate change in California. Donald Trump was open about ignoring the pleas of the safe blue states like New York when they were suffering the most from the coronavirus pandemic. But swing states distort our national priorities, even when the president wins the popular vote. Why did President Obama spend so much money bailing out the auto industry? “America’s auto industry — auto industry — auto industry” At least in part because it’s located mostly in swing states, like Michigan and Ohio, states whose electoral votes he needed to win. The reason we even have swing states is because almost all states award their electoral votes using a winner-take-all system. If a candidate wins the popular vote in a state, even by a single vote, they get all of that state’s electoral votes. This means that every election, 80 percent of American voters, roughly 100 million people, get ignored. Think about it. If you live in a state where you’re in the political minority, your vote is effectively erased. There are millions of Republicans in deep-blue states, like Massachusetts and California. But under this system, those Republican votes might as well not exist. This is the heart of the problem with the Electoral College. But here’s the important part. It can be fixed. Remember what we said back in Myth No. 2? The way the Electoral College actually functions today isn’t even enshrined in the Constitution. The winner-take-all method is nowhere in the Constitution. States have the power to award their electors however they like. In fact, there is already a movement brewing among states to agree to award their electors to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote. When enough states join in this interstate compact, it’ll mean that the popular-vote winner will always become president. So far, 15 states plus the District of Columbia have joined in for a total of 196 electoral votes, just 74 more. And that’s it. Suddenly, every voter will count, no matter where they live. This isn’t rocket science. The winner of an election should be the person who gets the most votes. It’s how we run every election in the country, except the most important one of all. It’s just basic fairness. So let’s put the power to select the president where it actually belongs, in the hands of all the people.

American democracy isn’t just quirky — it’s also unfair. Five times in our history, presidential candidates who have won more votes than their opponent have still lost the election. Why? Our 230-year-old jerry-built system for picking the president, known as the Electoral College.

Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory in 2016 is the most recent example — and the second one in only 20 years — but popular-vote-losing presidents go back as far as John Quincy Adams in 1824.

How is this democratic? How is this even fair?

It’s not. Despite what you may have learned in school, it was not the product of careful design by brilliant men. Thrown together at the last minute by the country’s founders, it almost immediately stopped functioning as they thought it would. And yet we have generally accepted it for centuries on the assumption it serves an important purpose.

It doesn’t. In the video above, we delve into the reasons people give for keeping the Electoral College and why they’re wrong.

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This isn’t a partisan issue — it’s a fairness issue. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, your vote probably doesn’t count the way it should. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Jesse Wegman is a member of the editorial board, where he has written about the Supreme Court and national legal affairs since 2013. He is the author of “Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College.” @jessewegman