A politician once said, “The candidate who wins the most popular votes should become president.” You would be forgiven for thinking these were the words of Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton. But they were those of Richard Nixon, who advocated reform to our electoral system in 1969.
The Electoral College, a vestigial organ from a bygone era, is a dangerous relic that frustrates contemporary norms and undermines democracy by subtle nefarious ways. In two of the five preceding contests for president, the candidate who received the most votes failed to become president of the United States. In 2004, if 60,000 Ohioans had switched from George Bush to John Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts would have won the White House with almost three million fewer votes than his opponent.
While slim margins in a handful of swing states ensured that history did not repeat itself this year, the Electoral College has facilitated this period of turmoil in which a sitting president pursues drawn out legal challenges in select states, while denying the results of an election that has already been called in favor of his opponent. Abolishing the Electoral College and awarding the presidency to the winner of the popular vote would reduce if not eliminate much angst and align our system with contemporary norms of political equality. But the benefits would be far broader than that.
First, abolishing the Electoral College would protect the credibility of the judiciary by reducing the likelihood of an unelected institution racked by politics having to adjudicate elections. Absent concrete evidence of fraud or broad irregularities, Donald Trump has fared worse in court than he did at the ballot box. But his persistence has further divided the country and eroded public confidence in the integrity of our electoral system.
Embracing the popular vote will not eliminate legal wrangling over our complicated system of election laws that vary state by state. But when thousands if not hundreds of votes no longer can sway the allocation of the electors for president, as in the case in every state but Nebraska and Maine today, there will be less incentive for the legal challenges.
Second, reducing the threat of litigation could also speed the transition, which could be critically important. The 9/11 commission concluded that the delayed transition after the 2000 election slowed efforts of the new administration to fill out its national security team. Public health officials today have warned that the frozen transition could delay a coronavirus vaccine rollout, potentially costing thousands of more lives.
Third, presidents have argued for decades in history that their national constituency incentivizes them to represent the interests of the country as a whole. However, the Electoral College inherently means that some voters are more politically valuable to the president than others. This is most clearly true for voters who are fortunate enough to reside in swing states. It is also true for those in red states or blue states, depending on which party is in power. This has significant policy ramifications.
Trump has been widely accused of pursuing policies that benefit certain swing states, like exempting Florida from the decision to allow greater offshore drilling, reward core supporters, like the sheer scale of federal agricultural subsidies that benefit his core base, and punish opponents, like concentrating the costs of his tax reform law in blue states.
But Trump is far from an anomaly. Analysis of the trade actions, military base closings, allocation of federal grants, and even disaster declarations suggest that Americans with the most political clout, or those in certain swing states or core base states, reap greater benefits than those who do not. Even our international competitors know this fundamental political inequality. The retaliatory tariffs, for instance, routinely target industries based in swing states and core base states to maximize pressure.
By eliminating this political inequality and forcing presidents to compete for every vote, regardless of where someone lives, abolishing the Electoral College would ease incentives that can distort presidents from pursuing policies that maximize national welfare. An end to the Electoral College would undoubtedly decrease such political clout of some rural voters in purple states. But it would increase attention to the concerns of millions more in solidly red states or blue states who are ignored by the party with little chance of flipping them and taken for granted by the other.
Perceived partisan advantage, something that our recent elections show is ephemeral at best, combined with the benefits that some states reap, will likely thwart reform efforts, as they have for 200 years. Yet this is an idea whose time has come. Eliminating the Electoral College would not restore the shaken faith of millions of Americans in our democracy and our system of government. But it is an obvious place to start.
Douglas Kriner is a professor of government affairs and the faculty director with the Institute for Politics and Global Affairs based at Cornell University.