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California Sen. Barbara Boxer files a bill to abolish the Electoral College once and for all

Anti-Trump Protestors Continue To Demonstrate Across The Country
Not everyone’s a fan.
Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

The backlash to the Electoral College keeps growing.

After Hillary Clinton got roughly 1 million more votes than Donald Trump nationwide but still lost the presidential election, more and more Democrats are noticing that the Electoral College is an utterly bizarre way of choosing presidents. But rules are rules — unless, of course, they get changed.

So here comes Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who introduced a bill Tuesday calling for a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College once and for all and just select future presidents by a simple national vote.

It’s not surprising that California would lead the charge here. As a large, populous state that leans disproportionately toward one party, it’s disadvantaged by the current system. Note that Clinton won California by 3 million votes, but that massive margin didn’t matter at all. She could’ve won California by three votes and still picked up the state’s 55 electors. All those millions of extra votes were simply wasted.

By contrast, Trump won Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by just 107,000 votes total. A relatively small group of Midwesterners who happened to live in closely divided states had much more influence over this election than millions of Californians. No wonder the state is ticked off.

Boxer’s amendment is a long shot — but there’s another way to abolish the Electoral College

Boxer’s bill is the longest of long shots. Even that’s probably overstating its chances. A constitutional amendment requires approval by two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of all state legislatures within seven years of introduction in order to take effect.

Given that the GOP — which, after all, just benefited from the current system — will have majorities in the House, Senate, and at least one legislative chamber in 37 states in January, this isn’t going anywhere.

That said, a constitutional amendment isn’t the only way to abolish the Electoral College. There’s also a different long-shot strategy that (a few) states are trying to pull off, called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

The idea here is to exploit an odd ambiguity in the Electoral College. See, under the current system, voters don’t vote directly for president. Instead, they vote for a slate of electors from each party who then gather in December to select the next president. Usually these electors select the candidate you’d expect them to select. If a majority of people in California vote for the Democratic slate of electors, those electors have all pledged to vote for Hillary Clinton, and they almost always do. (Almost.)

But the electors aren’t required to vote this way. States could, for instance, decide to automatically award all their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the nationwide popular vote. If enough states did this — states that, together, added up to 270 electoral votes — then the winner of the popular vote would become president. Every time.

So far, 10 states have passed laws saying they’d implement this system if enough other states do as well. That includes liberal California, New York, Illinois, and Washington. But this only adds up to 165 electoral votes — not nearly enough. And no red states or even swing states have signed on:

States that have signed on to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. They’re all blue.
(Vox)

Right now this plan has stalled out. For all the principled arguments for and against the Electoral College, there are still plenty of partisan motivations here. Democrats have lost the presidency despite winning the popular vote in two of the past five elections (2000 and 2016). Obviously they’d love to change the system. Republicans, meanwhile, have no pressing reason to. Right now the system advantages their more rural constituency.

So probably we’d have to see the electoral dynamics reverse themselves — say, Republicans winning the popular vote but losing the presidency — before there was a serious groundswell. Note that after the 2012 election, at least one prominent Republican wasn’t happy:

But he’s changed his mind since.

Further reading:

  • Why the Electoral College is the absolute worst, explained.
  • The real reason we originally set up an Electoral College: to protect slave states.
  • At Mental Floss, Adrienne Crezo has a nice piece on the last serious attempt to reform the Electoral College — after Richard Nixon’s messy election in 1968.
  • By the way, there is no chance that those electors are going to throw the election to Hillary Clinton when they meet in December. Read Andrew Prokop on why.

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