Written in lively prose that slices through thick constitutional jargon, veteran reporter and New York Times editorial board member Jesse Wegman ‘s book “Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College,” dives into America’s political maelstrom with a recent controversy.
Wegman, whose scheduled appearance at Vroman’s Bookstore was canceled due to coronavirus restrictions, recounts how, in November 2016, when Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, former marine and Democratic presidential elector Micheal Baca made headlines when he controversially called for fellow “Hamilton Electors” to cast their ballots for a Republican such as John Kasich to deny Donald Trump an Electoral College win. Colorado disqualified Baca’s ballot, Baca sued, and not until August 2019 did the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirm that “faithless electors” have the right to heed their conscience. We know the rest: Donald Trump won the Electoral College — the fifth popular vote loser to gain the White House despite losing the popular vote, after George W. Bush (2000), Benjamin Harrison (1888), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) and John Quincy Adams (1824). Fears are rife that the popular vote winner will again be denied the presidency this fall.
Baca’s story is the first of many exhibits Wegman submits in his case for abolishing the Electoral College. Myths about power apportionment and founding fathers are laid out and skeptics’ questions answered, point by point, within the historical framework of the Electoral College’s creation and evolution. Wegman elaborated on various points during an animated, meaty phone interview, lightly edited here for clarity and length.
PASADENA WEEKLY: How much would the success of a direct popular vote depend on people rousting themselves to actually vote? Voter turnout rates are abysmal.
JESSE WEGMAN: That’s a really excellent question, and I think it gets to the heart of one of the key rationales for why we should switch. It’s not just about the principle of political equality and the principle of majority rule, which are certainly at the the core of any modern democracy. It is also this idea of what does it mean on the ground, and how does a popular vote encourage people to come out. If you look at what happens in swing states today, which is the closest proxy we have to a national popular vote in that every vote in the state matters and the person who gets the most in that state wins, you really get a sense for what a popular vote would be like. Which is, more people turn out when they know their vote matters. I think it’s a pretty good bet that if we were to switch to a national popular vote you would see anywhere from 10 million to tens of millions more people voting purely for that reason. Something like 45 to 50 percent of the eligible voting public in America currently doesn’t [vote]. You constantly hear people say, “Oh, my vote doesn’t matter so I’m not going to bother.” In New York, as someone whose state always goes for the candidate that I would also want, my vote’s meaningless. So if I don’t go that day, nobody cares. That’s what pernicious about the Electoral College as it currently operates; it makes people feel that their vote doesn’t matter to the outcome.
How well would direct popular vote work without corresponding redistricting and anti-gerrymandering reforms?
The vote for president right now or under a national popular vote is not affected by district lines; votes are counted by state, so it doesn’t matter where you vote in the state, your vote is tallied as a member of your state, not your district. If you were doing a national popular vote, you’d be voting as a citizen of the United States. The one place where district lines and partisan gerrymandering would have a very profound effect on the presidential election is if we switched from the winner-take-all system that 48 states use for their electoral votes to the system used in Maine and Nebraska right now, which is congressional district allocation. The two electoral votes Maine and Nebraska have for their senators go to the person who wins the statewide vote, but the others, I believe it’s two in Maine and three in Nebraska, go to the winners of the corresponding congressional districts. If we switched to that system, which people have tried to do numerous times throughout history, then partisan gerrymandering would suddenly play a central role in how we elect the president because the way parties game the system in order to give themselves an unfair advantage in a certain district would then be reflected in the electoral votes that the candidates received. But right now, thankfully, those two things are not connected.
In one of the book’s most compelling episodes, almost 80 percent of Americans, including Richard Nixon, supported abolishing the Electoral College in the late 1960s in favor of a direct popular vote, and Birch Bayh’s amendment had the support of the AFL-CIO, American Bar Association, League of Women Voters and US Chamber of Commerce. That widespread support seems remarkable in 2020, when fewer citizens understand the history and workings of the Electoral College.
I can’t get over how close we came to abolishing the Electoral College through a constitutional amendment, how recent it was, and how many people forget about it, even people who were alive and politically aware at the time. It was front page news in The New York Times and elsewhere. I’m not sure that people then understood the Electoral College’s functioning more than they do today. You would be amazed at how many Americans currently believe and then believed that the people directly elect the president. People didn’t know what the Electoral College was back then either. What I think is different is it was not a partisan issue back then. In 1968, when Bayh was in the heat of pushing this amendment, it had been 80 years since the Electoral College had gone against the popular vote. So virtually no living American had ever experienced a split vote at that time. Nobody had a working memory of it happening. What really drove the national movement and the push for a popular vote, with 80 percent public support — there’s not 80 percent public support for anything now! Maybe background checks, speaking of issues thwarted because of failures of representative democracy —were very distinct factors: The one person-one vote rulings, which really transformed the way our democracy functions and the way people thought about who is included in democracy; the 24th Amendment abolishing the poll tax, which had been used for decades to keep black citizens in particular from voting throughout the South; the Civil Rights Act; and the Voting Rights Act, which put teeth into the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection and the right to vote independent of race. All of these things together were driving people toward a new conception of what it meant to live in a modern constitutional democracy in which every vote counts. The last straw, as I describe, was the chaotic 1968 election, where George Wallace was attempting to play spoiler and prevent either Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon from winning a majority of electors and came alarmingly close to doing so. He didn’t succeed in the end, but just the risk that he posed really elevated the sense that this is a crazy, broken system for electing a president, and we need to follow the arc of democratization that the country has been on ever since the founding, and let the people pick directly. That experience, Birch Bayh’s experience in the late 1960s and early ’70s, sheds so much light on the nature of this debate and how it goes even today. Starting in 2000, this became an intractably partisan issue. We’re now dealing with that on top of the old myths and misconceptions about how the Electoral College actually functions.
One point of debate is whether the Electoral College effectively prevents demagogues. Would the threat be greater without the Electoral College?
There’s a two-word answer: Donald Trump. He won the presidency because of the Electoral College, not in spite of it, and he is the most demagogic president that we’ve seen in our lifetimes, probably in American history. Nothing about the Electoral College’s original intent functions to keep someone like him out of office when it’s pretty clear that if the founders were presented with someone like Trump, they would have said, “Of course that’s the sort of person we mean to keep out of office.” Nevertheless, the Electoral College has never operated in the way the founders intended. It did work as intended for the first two elections with George Washington, when everyone knew Washington was going to be the overwhelming favorite, but once he leaves office and national political parties arise, the conception of a body of people who are making a choice for the country that’s about what’s best for America, and what’s best for the United States, that conception falls apart, and the Electoral College becomes what it is today: a vehicle for parties to bring on electors who are loyal partisans who will vote for their candidate no matter what. That destroys that original conception that Hamilton wrote about in Federalist 68. It’s never served to keep demagogues out of office.
What effect would replacing the Electoral College with direct popular vote have on our two-party system?
In short, a national popular vote is not going to threaten the basic structure of the two-party system. When you look at votes for governor in all the states across the country for the last 50 years, you find that they don’t have Electoral Colleges. … There is always a risk, when you have an open free-for-all type of election, of votes being spread wide and the candidate who gets the most still only getting 30-35 percent. That’s a fair concern. There are ways to deal with that. One is ranked-choice voting. I think there’s a whole lot to be said in favor of ranked-choice voting as a way to get to a popular vote result that gives the winner a majority of support. That’s a whole separate topic. But the bottom line is, I don’t think the two-party system is at imminent risk of collapse from a national popular vote.
John Koza’s Popular Vote Interstate Compact bypasses the need for a constitutional amendment; however, that lack of constitutional authority seems a weakness, in that partisan political power in statehouses could shift down the road and lead to individual states withdrawing. How to counteract that instability?
It’s a fair concern. The answer from the Popular Vote Interstate Compact people is twofold. One, they think they’re going to get enough states signing on to the compact eventually that it will be far enough over 270 votes that any one state withdrawing isn’t going to cancel the compact. We can argue about whether that’s a fair prediction, but that’s one of their arguments. Another one is, this is a bridge on the path to ensuring a popular vote in every election. I think their idea is, once you start doing it, even once, American citizens are going to be so much happier with a direct popular vote that support for a constitution amendment locking it in is going to go up pretty quickly and would then obviate the need for this compact, which as you note is a state-by-state law. These are both assumptions being made by compact’s advocates that I can’t guarantee are going to be borne out. But that’s their argument for why the concern that you express is not going to be fatal to this effort.
Have you observed anything in the Democratic primary race that altered your thinking about this or that you would have added to this book if you could have?
[Chuckles] There are so many interesting overlaps with what was happening in Iowa, the way the popular vote winner doesn’t walk away with the most delegates. I had to narrow the focus of this book, and I think primaries deserve their own book, so I did leave that whole discussion out. In terms of what I’ve seen so far, no. I don’t think the system as it’s functioning now is good, and I also don’t think the system we had before in 1972 was good either — backroom haggling among party elites is rife with its own problems. We need to find some middle ground that recognizes people’s voice in nominating a party’s candidate as well as the role of party leaders who may be thinking more long-term about how the party can remain a competitive force in national politics. I don’t want to say we tear up the whole system right now and start again, but I do think that these are fundamentally different elections: an election for a party leader versus an election between two different parties for who’s going to lead the country.
What do you identify as the biggest challenge that would need to be addressed in the event that the Popular Vote Compact was instituted?
I would hope that if this compact takes effect that it will do so with the sign-on of Republican-led states as well as Democratic-led states. Any big change in the way our government functions is by definition going to trigger a lot of strong feelings, and I think for it to happen with only Democratic-led states — currently, only Democratic-led states have signed on to the compact — would be destabilizing in a way and not good for the longer-term prospects of the popular vote. Several Republican-led states were very close to passing the compact right before the 2017 election, and that election obviously was a big setback for this cause. But the other major threat to the compact’s being operational is a legal one; there will be several constitutional challenges to it, and the biggest comes under Constitution’s Compact Clause.
You’ve researched this thoroughly with a range of political actors, scholars and voters. What was their most persistent or darkest fear concerning the Electoral College and democracy in general?
I think the most persistent one is the feeling that most Americans feel: that they’re ignored in the presidential election, and the damage that does to our democracy. That came from across the board: Democrats, Republicans, everywhere. That is the No. 1 harm that the Electoral College causes, even when the candidate who wins the Electoral College also wins the popular vote. Because the winner-take-all laws that 48 states use means that only a small handful of battleground states matter in any election and that means 80 percent of Americans — more than 100 million voters — are essentially disregarded. That sense of being ignored, of your concerns not mattering to the candidate who’s running for the top job in the country, or to the president him- or herself who’s in office, promulgating policy — the idea that you don’t matter to that person and essentially don’t exist to them is extremely corrosive and harmful to democracy, even more than this fear of a popular vote loser winning an election, which is unsettling in itself. Every time that happens, it’s a trauma to a modern democracy.
You write, “Winner-take-some is only appealing when you’re not the winner.” We are so partisan now that the argument that the direct popular vote campaign is a nonpartisan effort works against it in many quarters.
People are really dug in on both sides, and people are not looking for, you know, “Let’s all hold hands and come back together as Americans.” On the left and the right, there’s a real antagonism and mistrust and a feeling that we can’t work together, right? And that nothing’s going to happen unless one party or another takes total control and essentially vanquishes the enemy. I get that. I get the feeling, I get the mistrust. At the same time, I think we’re not going to survive very long if that is our driving energy. We have to get to a place where there is mutual agreement on rules and facts and what we are trying to do as a country, and what our values are. We can argue forever about policies and politics. But some baseline values have to be agreed on if we’re going to survive into the 21st century. To me, political equality and majority rule are two things we have to agree on. I just don’t think we can survive without agreement on that.
It seems most pertinent as democracy’s threatened around the world.
Exactly. We talk about being the democratic light to the rest of the world; if we’re going to be that, we have to live out our principles. Sure, I’m scared. But I’m also hopeful. When I read the day-to-day news, I get very dispirited and sad and hopeless in many ways. Then when I read the arc of American history, I get more hopeful.