The House and Senate are set to certify the Electoral College votes on Friday, and for the second time in 16 years, the centuries-old constitutional anachronism dating from when slavery was legal and only white men could vote, will anoint the second-place candidate as president of the United States.
The nation’s founding fathers created the Electoral College as an elitist council of wise men, chosen state by state, free to exercise their individual judgment about the best choice for president.
Not coincidentally, the Electoral College was also a way to keep slave states happy by boosting their relative political power. (And in that, it succeeded: Of the nation’s first nine presidential elections, eight were won by men from slave states.)
In the young country, most states fairly quickly decided to chose presidential electors by a candidate’s popular vote, though nothing in the Constitution requires them to do so. However, in many states, including Pennsylvania, those electors can choose to ignore the will of the voters. This year, an historic number of electors across the nation — seven — did just that. (Five defected from Hillary Clinton and two defected from Donald Trump.)
Defenders say the Electoral College allows small states and rural areas to maintain some political clout in a huge, geographically diverse country. In other words, they think it’s a good thing that one person’s vote should count more based on where someone lives.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that kind of anti-democratic geographic weighting of votes more than 50 years ago for all congressional, state and local elections. Since then, one-person, one-vote has been the law of the land in all elections except for the one for president.
If the Electoral College is supposed to empower small states, it isn’t working. Presidential nominees routinely ignore them. And size alone says nothing about how a state votes for president. This year, of the 10 least populated states, Clinton and Trump each won the popular vote in five. Of the six most populous states, three went for Clinton, three for Trump.
In the 21st century, the world’s most powerful nation is strong enough to trust the people, rather than some convoluted weighted voting by states, to choose the president.
Ending the Electoral College doesn’t require the daunting task of passing a constitutional amendment. The Constitution leaves states free to decide how they pick electors. A serious national movement, led by National Popular Vote, has been getting states to sign a mutually-binding pledge to cast their electoral votes for the popular vote winner. The agreement, a legally enforceable compact among the states, would take effect only when signed by states representing a majority — 270 votes — in the Electoral College. Eleven states, representing 165 electoral votes, have signed on, including New Jersey.
In the world’s greatest democracy, there’s no longer any reason to put a geographic thumb on the voting scale in presidential elections. There’s a practical mechanism at hand to end the anti-democratic outcomes driven by the Electoral College — if enough states join together.