Get rid of Electoral College? Impossible, but…

Abolish the Electoral College?

It’s under attack, mainly because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote nationally but, thanks to the electoral vote, lost to President-elect Donald Trump.

To many people, it seems unfair to deny the popular will. This is the fifth presidential election out of 58 in which more people voted for the loser than the winner. The last time was as recently as 2000, one reason the issue has gained more attention.

The Founders thought that by having the president chosen by popularly voted “electors” whose only job was electing the president, the election would be a popular vote but with the added independence and wisdom of the electors. It was a kind of “popular vote plus” approach.

Because the country was formed out of thirteen separate states that had always made decisions unanimously, the new Constitution was designed to respect the states as well as the people. The balancing deal came in the two houses of Congress.

The more populated states, like Virginia, wanted Congress elected based on population alone. The small states, like New Jersey, wanted the traditional equal state representation.

The Connecticut compromise was the House of Representatives elected by population and equal state votes in the Senate. This deal was the key to inducing states, large and small, to accept the new Constitution.

Rhode Island provided a clear sign of the concern of the small states and the need to let them have an equal voice.

The smallest colony, it was the first to declare independence from the British king, but the last to accept the Constitution. It was reluctant to merely exchange central control by Great Britain for similar dominance by the new federal government.

When the new Congress first met, Rhode Island remained an independent country. President Washington avoided it on his first tour of New England. Finally, Congress clamped a trade embargo on it, and Rhode Island, with its two senators, caved in.

As for the House, the Founders debated how to count the South’s slaves. Originally, the Constitution provided that both House votes and federal taxes would be based on population. Surprisingly, some northerners wanted to fully count slaves, banned from voting, because that would boost tax revenues from the South.

In the end, a compromise counted slaves as three-fifths of a person, an absurdity that lasted until after the Civil War. By that time, the freed slaves were fully counted, but they did not get full voting rights for another century. That helps explain congressional dominance by the South during those years.

Based on the congressional compromise, it was logical that the electors would be chosen by state and each state’s votes would reflect the congressional deal. The result was that each state has a number of electoral votes that’s the sum of their two senators and the number of their House members.

The main purpose of the census every ten years is to set the number of representatives each state is assigned for the next decade. The total number of representatives, now 435, is set by Congress as it wishes.

The original deal still works as intended. Even now, 20 smaller states have greater weight in the selection of the president, thanks to the two votes for each state, than they would with purely popular voting. Maine, for example, has almost twice the influence it would have based on population alone.

With that kind of benefit for so many states, it seems highly unlikely that enough states – 38 out of 50 – would amend the Constitution and allow a popular vote for president.

Complaints about the Electoral College range from its having been supposedly based on slavery to being too complicated to understand. Whatever its drawbacks, the deal’s benefits to small states remains. As for understanding the system, the media and schools need to do better in fulfilling their obvious responsibility.

However unlikely it may be, the presidential election could be brought much closer to the popular vote, without amending the Constitution. If Congress increased the number of members of the House of Representatives, it would dilute, though not completely eliminate, the effect of the two electoral votes guaranteed to each state.

The Founders originally proposed an amendment to ensure the House would be large enough to keep representatives close to their constituents. But the cost would be high. Some of it could be covered by cutting the pensions and benefits of senators and representatives.

The big question: would bringing the presidential election closer to the popular vote be worth such a change?

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.