Do a Majority of Americans Want to Get Rid of the Electoral College?

In my last post, I considered ways to reform the Electoral College (EC). One way is for states to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). The other option is for states to adopt the Congressional District Method which Maine and Nebraska currently use to apportion their electoral votes.

I noted in my analysis that it was not clear what Americans currently think of the EC or the NPVIC. Luckily, this week’s The Economist/YouGov Poll asked its panel a number of questions connected to this debate. The results tend to be in line with Gallup’s 2016 findings, which I discussed in my last post.

The Economist/YouGov Poll asked three questions.

While the last of these questions did explain how the NPVIC works, it is surprising how many Americans are not sure whether or not they like the idea.

What can we learn from this poll’s findings? Here are three observations, which largely reflect the country’s political mood.

  1. Democrats do not hold too much regard for the EC and they want to amend the Constitution to eliminate the system and let voters directly elect the president.
  2. Republicans have favorable views of the EC and prefer to keep the system as is.
  3. Independents are divided on this issue and many of them are not sure what to think of the current electoral system.

Given these divisions, the EC is here to stay! The best the EC’s critics can hope for is for states to reform how they award their electoral votes. Clearly, the NPVIC is one possible reform, but most people are not aware of this initiative. The other option is for states to adopt the Congressional District Method I reviewed in my last post. A final proposal, which I did not discuss in my proposal and has been discussed by considered by some state legislatures, is for states to apportion their electoral votes proportionally.

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Should We Reform the Electoral College? A Few Considerations

For the last days, I have been thinking about the way Americans elect their president and I am not the only way thinking about this issue, according to Google Trends data.

To win the presidency, a nominee has to earn a minimum of 270 electoral votes, rather than a majority of votes cast. This is not the place to review the history of the Electoral College (EC), but it is important to keep in mind that it totals 538 votes. Each state and the District of Columbia gets a proportional share of these electoral votes, according to the following formula:

  1. States receive two electoral votes, which corresponds to each’s allotment of two seats in the U.S. Senate.
  2. The remaining electoral votes are distributed among the 50 states based on each’s number of Congressional Districts.
  3. With the adoption of the 23rd amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the District of Columbia has three electoral votes.

The EC is a much-maligned system. In a recent town-hall, Massachusetts Senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren explained why she wants to get rid of the EC and let Americans vote directly for their president. Here is one of Senator Warren’s tweets summarizing her position:

Unsurprisingly, Republicans oppose her proposal. For example, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted:

Even President Donald Trump, who won the EC but lost the popular to Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million votes, entered the debate, sharing his thoughts on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1108187855954870272

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1108190837257764864

What do Americans think of the EC? Do they want to get rid of it? Last summer, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducted a poll that found that close to two-thirds of Americans want to directly elect their president by popular vote. It also demonstrated that Democrats strongly favored getting rid of the EC while Republicans’ attitudes are mixed. A Rasmussen survey of likely voters carried out in early October 2018 did not corroborate the PRRI’s findings. Only 46% of respondents favored “eliminating” the EC. In December 2016, Gallup found that 49% of Americans wanted “to amend the Constitution to allow for a popular vote for president”, but this was lower than the 62% of respondents who in 2012 wanted to get rid of the EC. In addition, Gallup’s research also suggested that 81% of left-leaning and 19% of right leaning Americans wanted to do away with the EC.

While many Americans are dissatisfied with the EC, amending the constitution is unrealistic in today’s hyperpartisan environment. So what can we do?

One solution, as Jamelle Bouie recently argued in the pages of The New York Times, is for states to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This initiative is quite simple. It requires states (and the District of Columbia) to pledge their delegates to the winner of the national popular vote. So far, 13 states, equaling 181 electoral votes, have passed legislation supporting this project. But the system goes into effect once the initiative attracts 270 electoral votes.

StateGovernorState Legislature2016 Pres. WinnerVote Margin
CADemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton30%
CODemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton5%
CTDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton16%
DCDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton86%
HIDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton32%
ILDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton17%
MARepublicanDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton27%
MDRepublicanDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton26%
NJDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton14%
NYDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton25%
RIDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton16%
VTRepublicanDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton26%
WADemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton16%

While other states are considering joining the Compact, the biggest hurdle, as the table shows, is that Republicans still dominate a majority of the states’ legislatures and governor mansions across the country. For now, the Compact is an unrealistic option.

Another solution could be for states to adopt what I call the Maine-Nebraska Model or what is also known as the “Congressional District Method“. These two states distribute their electoral votes using the following formula:

  1. The winner of the popular vote receives the two electoral votes associated with their states’ representation in the U.S. Senate.
  2. A presidential candidate can lose the state’s popular vote, but still earn electoral votes if he or she can win a majority of the vote in each of the state’s Congressional Districts.

In 2008, Nebraska split its electoral votes, awarding John McCain four of its five electoral votes and one to Barack Obama. Obama won the majority of the vote in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Omaha and its suburbs. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won three of Maine’s four electoral vote, while Donald Trump won the electoral vote of the mostly-rural 2nd Congressional District.

What if all the states adopted this Maine-Nebraska Model? Would it have affected the results of the 2016 presidential race?

The table below includes numbers for the actual outcome of the elections, while the next column looks at the results if we apply the Maine-Nebraska Model. The table also includes the number of Congressional Districts and states each candidate won. The last column shows who won the District of Columbia’s three electoral votes.

Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC
Clinton232237201943
Trump306301302410

If all states had apportioned their electoral votes using Maine’s and Nebraska’s approach, President Trump would have still comfortably won the presidency. Should this disqualify this alternative to the EC?

Let us apply the Maine-Nebraska Model to the 2012 and the 2008 presidential elections.

Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC
Obama332265262103
Romney206273242250

Under the Maine-Nebraska Model, President Obama would have been a one-term president. And Obama’s victory in 2008 would have been narrower.

Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC
McCain173255281990
Obama365283222363

What if we applied the model to the 2004 and 2000 elections?

Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC
Bush286318312560
Kerry251220191793
Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC
Bush271300302400
Gore268238201953

Under the Maine-Nebraska Model, President Bush would have earned more electoral votes in both elections.

What can we learn from this analysis? If we agree we Senator Warren’s belief that we need to change the EC in order to force presidential candidates to campaign outside “battleground states”, the Maine-Nebraska Model accomplishes this goal. After all, would Maine or Nebraska have received any attention during the last presidential elections, if they distributed their electoral votes as the other 48 states?

It is important to note that Senator Warren would probably not support the Maine-Nebraska Model. But, her desire to eliminate the EC is unrealistic. Amending the constitution will not take place in the next years.

Republicans’ opposition to reforming the EC is understandable. If it was not for the EC, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton would have won their respective races. But if public opinion starts to turn against the EC, Republicans could propose that states adopt Maine’s and Nebraska’s approach as a measure that seems more democratic than the current electoral system.

Would this be good for democracy? It would be a step in the right direction. But the chances that states will adopt Maine’s or Nebraska’s approach is also a long shot. It is not in either party’s interest. By turning battleground states into battleground districts, the parties would have to adapt their campaigning structures and raise more money to target even more districts.

For now, it seems we will just have to accept the EC’s limitations as it is unlikely that Americans will be able to reform or replace the current electoral system.