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Despite cries to scrap Electoral College, it may not be so bad for Dems

Greg Nash

Recently, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told an audience in Jackson, Miss., that she was in favor of a constitutional amendment to eliminate the Electoral College and choose the president using popular vote totals.

Several other Democratic presidential aspirants, including Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, quickly endorsed Warren’s proposal as well. The Electoral College may not be in imminent danger of disappearing, but the Democratic emphasis so early in the campaign on the election process indicates that partisan divisions in support for the Electoral College are on the rise. 

{mosads}It is easy to see why voters in Mississippi, or for that matter, Massachusetts or California, dislike the Electoral College. Their votes get taken for granted, and the presidential candidates ignore them during the general election. Most Americans live in states that are not contested in the general election, and surveys show that most Americans prefer that we abandon the Electoral College.

It is also easy to see why Democrats think they might benefit from doing away with the Electoral College. Democrats have lost two elections in the past 20 years where they won the popular vote. There is a clear partisan argument for abandoning the Electoral College; however, there’s also a clear partisan argument for Republicans about why the Electoral College should remain.

For this reason, arguments about the Electoral College seem a little disingenuous; it isn’t a good strategy to merely argue that we should use rules that help one side or the other win, but principled arguments about the Electoral College wind up looking suspicious.

Thus, when conservative media publish articles in defense of the Electoral College, we wonder whether the authors would make the same claims if their side was losing. When liberals excoriate the Electoral College for being undemocratic, we wonder if this is just because the Democrats lost. Things get even trickier when claims about race (such as the dubious claim that the Electoral College was established to benefit slave owners) are introduced, or when judgements are made about people who live in swing states.

If Democrats are going to campaign on eliminating the Electoral College, we should consider what their strongest argument for the Electoral College looks like. Here is my effort to make that case:

The Electoral College might make elections less expensive

We don’t actually know how much a national campaign to win the popular vote would cost, but such a campaign would most definitely require a candidate to purchase more national television advertisements, and to focus on the largest, most expensive media markets.

By limiting the campaign to a small number of states — and in particular, by limiting it to states where advertising is generally less expensive — the Electoral College helps level the financial playing field. Although Democratic presidential candidates have outspent their Republican counterparts in the last three elections, Democrats should consider whether they want to champion a system that could require substantially more campaign spending. 

The Electoral College makes elections predictable

When competition is limited to a small number of swing states, candidates, parties and interest groups generally know where they will need to allocate their resources. This may not sound like a particularly desirable outcome, but issue-oriented groups have generally played a bigger role in Democratic campaigns than in Republican campaigns.

Environmental groups, abortion rights groups, labor unions and other Democratic mainstays have been able to organize advertising campaigns and get-out-the-vote drives well in advance of the general election because they know where the election will be competitive. Such groups rarely have the ability to advertise or do other work at a national level.

Retail campaigning matters 

Personal appearances by candidates in swing states have long been a feature of presidential campaigns. It is debatable whether people skills really make much of a difference in how presidents perform, but they are part of the mythology we have developed about elections. Our primary system has long put a premium on this type of campaigning, and the Electoral College also forces candidates to engage with smaller audiences in different types of settings. 

Connecting with minority voters is important. The need to campaign in swing states forces candidates (or at least, Democratic candidates) to speak to minority voters, who are pivotal in states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Demographic change, furthermore, has the effect of making states competitive precisely because they have become less white. Arizona has arguably reached this point, and Texas and Georgia may get there in a decade or two. It is debatable whether a popular vote system would push Democrats to recognize minorities in this way. 

These are by no means the most important considerations in thinking about the Electoral College, nor are they things that only Democrats can agree upon. They may not even outweigh the arguments against the Electoral College. But all of these reasons speak to values that Democratic voters purport to hold. Democrats should be certain this is what they want before making this a matter of partisan conflict.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

Tags Electoral College; popular vote Elizabeth Warren Pete Buttigieg

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