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Senate Democrats introduce a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College

Republicans say such efforts will hurt rural voters.

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A person experiments with an electoral map displayed at a Full Frontal With Samantha Bee press junket on September 5, 2018.
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Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

A number of Senate Democrats are ready to follow through on an idea that some 2020 candidates — and a good chunk of Americans — support: abolishing the Electoral College.

This week, Sens. Brian Schatz, Dick Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a constitutional amendment that would abolish the Electoral College, a position that’s become increasingly popular among 2020 candidates as the election gets underway. The ratification of the amendment would mean presidential candidates would be directly elected by the national popular vote. Separately, Sen. Jeff Merkley has also introduced a package of election reforms, including a bill aimed at getting rid of the Electoral College.

It’s a push lawmakers say they’re launching in order ensure that every person’s vote is valued equally, something that’s not entirely guaranteed with the Electoral College system, under which votes in certain swing states can play a larger role in deciding the outcome than others.

“The status quo is quite undemocratic and radical,” Schatz told Vox. “This change, in my view, is an unassailably logical evolution of our Constitution.”

While the support for getting rid of the Electoral College has grown — more than 60 percent of voters in a poll conducted by Civis Analytics right after the 2016 election favored using the popular vote instead — the process to ultimately do so faces a steep fight.

In order to be adopted, a constitutional amendment requires the support of two-thirds of the House and the Senate, as well as ratification from three-fourths of states (that’s 38 states.) It could also be proposed via a constitutional convention, which would require the convening of two-thirds of state legislatures along with a favorable vote for the amendment from three-fourths of them.

Schatz acknowledged as much and noted that it wasn’t an effort he was expecting to come to fruition in the near term. “I don’t underestimate the difficulty here,” he said.

No Republican senators have signed on to the measure so far, and several have already vocalized their opposition to it. They argue that a switch to a popular vote system could potentially disadvantage rural parts of the country, which would receive less attention from candidates compared to more populous areas.

Aside from the adoption of a constitutional amendment, another possible avenue for reform is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement that requires individual states’ approval. If a state agrees to the compact, it effectively guarantees that the state’s electoral votes would go to the winner of the national popular vote, but only if enough states sign on, Vox’s Andrew Prokop writes.

The compact requires a critical mass to work: States making up at least 270 electoral votes — the number a candidate requires to win the presidency — would need to participate in order to make it happen. So far, 13 states and the District of Columbia, which comprise 184 electoral votes total, have made the compact law.

Both efforts aren’t expected to see results for some time, but Schatz and the amendment’s backers say the current push is a necessary one that could translate into key changes down the line.

“I believe that if and when we make this change, it will seem ridiculous that we did it any other way,” he said.

Why Electoral College angst is cropping up again

As the 2020 Democratic primary gets underway, a newly energized progressive wing is pushing candidates to champion not just individual policies, but wholesale institutional reforms, a wave that stems from concerns that the ways current systems are set up — from the courts to the Senate — simply aren’t equitable.

As Vox’s Ella Nilsen reported, Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently revived the conversation about eliminating the electoral college during a CNN town hall, when she was asked about expanding voting rights for formerly incarcerated people.

“We need to make sure that every vote counts,” she said. “The way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting and that means get rid of the Electoral College, and everybody ... I think everybody ought to have to come and ask for your vote.”

Warren also noted that presidential candidates often concentrate their campaigning in states that are considered battlegrounds, while skipping out on places (big or small) like California and Mississippi, because they were likely to pick a Democrat or Republican.

“There’s a broad recognition that the systems we have right now need to be modified in order to ensure that the average American citizen maintains a voice in the process,” Schatz said. “There’s a thirst for systemic reforms and a desire to look at our processes that I haven’t seen in a long time.”

At its core, lawmakers argue that the Electoral College fundamentally places a different weight on each person’s vote, depending on where they live.

As Prokop noted after the 2016 presidential election, the “Democratic and Republican parties have each developed solid bases in a series of states that are all but certain to vote for them in a presidential year.” And with those Electoral College votes locked up, each candidate instead gives an outsize focus to swing states like Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio:

The swing states’ dominance is a consequence of the fact that almost every state chooses to allot all its electoral votes to whoever comes in first place statewide, regardless of his or her margin of victory.

That is, it doesn’t matter whether [Hillary] Clinton wins New York by a 30 percent margin or a 10 percent margin, since she’ll get the same amount of electoral votes either way. But the difference between winning Florida by 0.1 percent and losing it by 0.1 percent is crucial, since 29 electoral votes could flip.

Naturally, then, when the general election comes around, candidates ignore every noncompetitive state — meaning the vast majority of the country — and pour their resources into the few that tend to swing back and forth between Republicans and Democrats. That’s the best strategy for reaching that magic number, 270.

The flaws of this arrangement have been thrown into sharp relief by recent elections in 2016 and 2000, when Hillary Clinton and Al Gore both won the popular vote but lost the election. All told, only five times in US history has a presidential candidate won the popular vote while losing the Electoral College — an argument in the system’s favor, according to its defenders. But two of those times were in the past two decades, drawing lawmakers’ (and voters’) attention to the issue.

The biggest pushback from Republicans centers on concerns that it could disadvantage rural voters

Defenders of the current system argue that removing the Electoral College would give populous urban centers disproportionate power to decide elections compared to more rural areas (even though some analyses show there’s little incentive for candidates to pay extra attention to many rural states now).

In the wake of Warren’s town hall, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) pushed back on the idea of eliminating the Electoral College, arguing that Democrats only wanted to do so because they wanted “rural America to go away politically.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) emphasized similar concerns in a statement following this week’s introduction of the constitutional amendment. “Abolishing the Electoral College would be bad news for Iowa and for the Midwest generally,” he said in a statement. “The voices of farmers, factory workers, and so many others in rural America would be drowned out by city dwellers on the coasts.”

Schatz emphasized that these concerns were unfounded, given the distribution of votes. As laid out by a nonprofit advocating for a national popular vote, candidates would still have to campaign in a broad array of places if they wanted to secure a majority in a popular vote system. “The imaginary situation where a political candidate goes to Los Angeles and Chicago and just camps out, is belied by the arithmetic,” Schatz said.

As the system stands, candidates are incentivized to disproportionately spend their time in a very specific set of states, in a way that doesn’t necessarily guarantee rural areas any more representation, Penn State associate professor Robert Speel noted in a 2016 Time article:

Data from the 2016 campaign indicate that 53 percent of campaign events for [Donald] Trump, Hillary Clinton, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine in the two months before the November election were in only four states: Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio. During that time, 87 percent of campaign visits by the four candidates were in 12 battleground states, and none of the four candidates ever went to 27 states, which includes almost all of rural America.

A national popular vote system wouldn’t devalue the votes of people who live in rural states and small towns. What is true is that it would accurately value them by treating them equal to people who live in cities. And for that reason, as Prokop notes, abolishing the Electoral College would require “many small states to approve a change that would reduce their influence on the presidential outcome.”

That means even as the conversation about changing the Electoral College is, once more, picking up, it’s likely this fight will go on for years. Schatz said he was seeking bipartisan backing for the measure as he and others continued to advocate for it.

“The change from the United States senators appointed by the legislature to by the popular vote took decades. Women’s suffrage took decades,” he said. “This isn’t necessarily a 2020 issue.”

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