The Electoral College isn't meant to assist either party's politicians

The Electoral College isn't meant to assist either party's politicians
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“The Electoral College is a vestige,” President Barack Obama told the nation in 2016. “It’s a carry-over. … [T]here are some structures in our political system, as envisioned by the Founders, that sometimes are going to disadvantage Democrats.”

Others were quick to agree. Since 2016, efforts to eliminate the Electoral College have intensified, only to be met with derision and scorn from Republicans who say that Democrats are trying to change the rules of the game simply because they lost.

Will some Republicans now make the equal, but opposite, mistake?

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Last week, longtime Republican Saul Anuzis flipped these arguments on their head, arguing in The Hill that the partisan advantage in the Electoral College has shifted: The Electoral College needs to go, Anuzis says, because the system could make it more difficult for President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed MORE to win in 2020.

Democrats have been relatively subtle about any partisan motivations for changing America’s unique presidential election system. Perhaps Anuzis should not have stated his partisan intent quite so baldly. To be fair, he is a paid advocate for National Popular Vote and is acting accordingly. Nevertheless, he has effectively demonstrated the most important characteristic of the Electoral College: It is not partisan. To the contrary, anyone who supports — or opposes — the Electoral College for partisan reasons is bound to be disappointed.

Consider how often the Electoral College “advantage” has flipped over the years.

In the 1930s, Democrats were massive winners. Franklin D. Roosevelt won four elections in a row by a margin of more than 300 electors. Yet it wasn’t long before Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower reversed that advantage. Just eight short years after Roosevelt’s massive landslides, Eisenhower won 16 states that hadn’t voted Republican since 1928 and two others that hadn’t voted Republican since 1924.

The pendulum has made drastic swings at other points in history, as well.

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During the 1980s, Republicans allegedly had a “lock” on the Electoral College. At least 21 states, including California, consistently were voting Republican. How could Democrats win the White House under such circumstances? Apparently, someone forgot to tell Bill Clinton that he was “supposed” to lose. Just a decade into this Republican “invincibility,” Clinton turned California and eight other states blue for the first time since 1964.

The elections in 2000 and 2016 do not contradict this nonpartisan history.

True, in November 2000, Republican George W. Bush won the Electoral College, even as he lost the popular vote. Yet mere weeks earlier, Democrat Al Gore had been certain that he was about to win the electoral vote and lose the popular vote. He even had lawyers preparing defenses of the Electoral College so that he could justify his unusual victory to the American public. 

The 2016 election was similarly unpredictable. Trump won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote, but the election nearly turned out differently. Late in the campaign, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMore than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls Trump is threatening to boycott the debates — here's how to make sure he shows up Trey Gowdy returns to Fox News as contributor MORE had been sure that she was about to find herself in that position. She didn’t want to defend such a victory, so she made a decision that proved unwise: She spent time and resources deliberately driving up the popular vote in areas that already were friendly to her. Her strategy was the precise opposite of what the Electoral College encourages. Clinton might have been better off using her resources in “blue wall” states that were beginning to feel taken for granted by the Democratic Party.

Perhaps she could have won if she’d been more focused on the purpose of the Electoral College.

History shows that the Electoral College is neither pro-Democrat nor pro-Republican. Instead, it rewards the candidate who appears to be listening to the greatest cross-section of people at any given time. It encourages coalition-building across states and regions, which is healthy in a large and diverse nation.

Such talk of coalition-building doubtless sounds fanciful, given the divisiveness and anger that permeate politics today — but America has been here before. The years after the Civil War were ugly, too, but constitutional institutions such as the Electoral College forced Americans to come back together.

Consider the situation in the late 1800s: Democrats in the South were unable to win by relying on only their safe states. Those states did not have enough electors. Meanwhile, Republicans could win with only their safe areas, but just barely. Both sides had incentives (whether they liked it or not) to reach across the political aisle and appeal to a greater diversity of Americans. 

Those incentives ultimately brought Americans to a healthier place, which is why FDR was able to win elections by such healthy margins.

Today’s situation admittedly is frustrating. Everyone seems angry, divided, and unwilling to compromise. Eliminating the Electoral College would be an easy solution, but it’s not the right solution.

If Republicans have to change the rules to win, then they don’t deserve the presidency — which is precisely what they have been telling Democrats all along.

Tara Ross is a retired lawyer and the author of several books about the Electoral College, including “Why We Need the Electoral College” (Regnery Gateway, 2019). Follow her on Twitter @TaraRoss.