Poll shows 61% of Americans favor abolishing the electoral college, but it may not be so simple
Five weeks of recounts and election-related lawsuits have rekindled a long-smoldering debate over whether the electoral college should be abolished. Advocates tell Kane In Your Corner a national popular vote would restore faith in the system. But a respected historian cautions the electoral college makes our election system more stable.
Scott Drexel of the National Popular Vote Campaign believes the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election is Exhibit A in why the current electoral college system has outlived its usefulness.
"What the current system does more than anything is create artificial crises and unnecessary chaos," he says, "because every vote doesn't count the same, and the person with the most votes doesn't win."
A recent Gallup Poll found 61% of Americans favor abolishing the electoral college. It's easy to understand why. Two of the last three presidents were elected despite losing the popular vote - Donald Trump in 2016 and George W. Bush in 2000. And it almost happened a third time in 2004. Had John Kerry won 60,000 more votes in Ohio, he would have been elected president despite losing the popular vote in that election.
And because electoral votes are awarded by state, a handful of swing states wind up deciding elections while most of the country is ignored. Take this year's race. Trump and Joe Biden held 124 rallies in just four states: Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina and Michigan. In the rest of the country, combined, they held 89. In 33 states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, they held no rallies at all.
But historian Allen Guelzo, a senior research scholar at Princeton University, says the framers deserve more credit than they often get for designing an election system with staying power, and he says this year's post-election challenges, while uncomfortable, are a good example.
Guelzo says, "Having the electoral college helps to say, 'We looked at this once, we looked at this twice, here's some ratification'. What has the electoral college given us as a result? It's given us almost 250 years of stable electoral processes."
He says national elections are more susceptible to political pressure, which is why many nations that have them, like Russia and Iran, are authoritarian. By contrast, he says many lasting democracies, like Great Britain, have two-stage elections like ours, in which voters cast ballots in smaller elections, choosing people who later elect the chief executive.
The National Popular Vote Campaign believes it has a strategy that encompasses the best of both systems. Rather than abolish the electoral college with a constitutional amendment, the group is advocating that states join the National Popular Vote Interstate compact, in which they would pass state laws agreeing to award their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote.
Fifteen states, including New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, have signed on, along with the District of Columbia. Combined, they total 196 electoral votes. If states totaling 74 more electoral votes agree, they'll reach 270, at which point the deal will take effect, and the winner of the popular vote will be guaranteed to be elected president.
Or will they? Guelzo, for one, isn't so sure.
"If it really came down to it in an election," he says, "any one of those states could look at the potential result of the electoral college and say, 'Hmm, no, we really don't think so. We think we'll just not participate in the way we said we were.' And who's going to punish them for not doing that? No one."
But proponents say that's what President Trump is trying to get states to do right now, under the current system. So, at the very least, they say the compact wouldn't make anything worse, and it could make things a lot better.
"I always go back to governors' races," Drexel says. "We don't have problems with governors' races. You can't sue in this county to keep votes going and sue in that county to stop the count. The person with the most votes just wins."