For anyone still hoping beyond hope that Donald Trump won’t be POTUS come January, few avenues remain.
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein fund-raised to start recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, but that’s a long shot. As Clinton campaign lawyer Mark Elias wrote in a post on Medium, Trump’s margins of victory in those states “well exceeds the largest ever margin overcome in a recount.” There’s also the possibility that “faithless electors” could use Electoral College provisions to cast ballots against Trump when they meet December 19, even if they come from a state he won. But that would force a Republican-controlled House of Representatives to decide the election. And although retiring California senator Barbara Boxer recently introduced a bill that would bind members of the Electoral College into choosing the winner of the popular vote, it’s unlikely to pass.
So basically, don’t hold your breath.
You know what would’ve prevented this whole Trump-winning fiasco in the first place? If the country had a much simpler, one-person, one-vote system, where the popular vote elects the next president just as it would for any other state or municipal elected office. Had that kind of system been in place, Hillary Clinton’s margin of two million votes would’ve carried her to the White House. (And, no, she didn’t achieve that margin with millions of so-called “illegal” votes, as Trump has asserted without a shred of proof.)
Axing the Electoral College could have another benefit too: it might help bring disenfranchised or disillusioned voters back into the fold.
In the weeks since Election Day, I’ve talked to many voters who say either they don’t vote for president, take part in presidential elections despite their lack of faith in the system, or refuse to vote in any race at all.
Although a whopping 84 percent of the city chose Clinton, almost one-third of registered Chicago voters didn’t come to the polls this year. Matthew Davenport, a 36-year-old black man from Chatham, was one of them.
“I don’t feel the voting system and the political system is set up for all people to fairly participate,” says the former marine, who has been disaffected by presidential elections ever since the hot mess that was Bush vs. Gore in the year 2000. That’s the last time—and only other time since 1888—when a candidate won the popular vote but lost the election based on the Electoral College.
Davenport, who doesn’t hold any political party affiliation, says he doesn’t feel his vote matters, and that the results of the election would have been the same whether he voted or not.
“The [Electoral College] is a reason I was turned off to politics in the first place,” he says. “The system is set up to be confusing, and it’s not representative of the American people.”
Here’s a not-so-fun fact: It was also set up to give elites from slave states more influence in the presidential election. As Yale professor Akhil Reed Amar told Vox, the south would have lost in a direct-election system because a huge portion of its population were its slaves. The Electoral College allowed slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a person, despite their brutally enforced disenfranchisement. The slavery bias was preserved, Reed Amar said, despite amendments to Constitution. This is one major failing of most middle-school civics lessons, because it was never about big states versus small states. Rather, the Electoral College was created in the service of an economic order that depended upon the free labor and political repression of black people.
So it’s not hard to see where Davenport is coming from. Under the Electoral College’s winner-take-all system, Illinois has been a reliably blue state for decades, precluding the votes of Republicans, Libertarians, or Green Party members from having a direct impact on the outcome of presidential elections. When a candidate loses the popular vote, voices from underrepresented and minority groups become a nonfactor.
The Electoral College also discourages some people from engaging in the political process beyond voting—in party organizing or volunteering—because in a blue state like Illinois, such efforts are perceived as going to waste.
No presidential candidate—not even Jill Stein—appealed to 28-year-old Green Party voter Tasha Bradley-Smith of Logan Square. Although she skipped the vote for president, she voted in every down-ballot race, and thinks that if the country switched to the popular vote, it’d be better for third parties.
“I don’t feel comfortable voting Green in presidential elections when we have an Electoral College,” Bradley-Smith says. “People tend not to vote for third parties because they know it could hurt their next potential choice. So I think [getting rid of the Electoral College] would be a good thing.”
She feels third parties need to build more local power before vying for the presidency, and votes Green in as many local races as possible. If attempts to change the Electoral College prove successful, she says she would even consider volunteering for Green candidates. Naturally, when people feel that their efforts will have a direct impact on election outcomes, they may be more inclined to participate.
There is one glimmer of hope on the horizon: Groups like National Popular Vote have advocated for a shift towards a popular-vote system in presidential elections. Already, ten states and the District of Columbia have adopted the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement for each participating state to award all its electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. At present, 165 of the total possible 538 electoral votes are bound within the interstate compacts.
Illinois signed on in 2008. Glad to know our politicians are already part of the solution.
And as NPV has pointed out, it would be nice if the state got more attention during presidential elections than, say, Trump paying lip service to Chicago.
“In the campaign we just went through, two-thirds of it took place in six states, and 90 percent of TV ad spending took place in 12 states,” says Vermont state representative Chris Pearson, a National Popular Vote board member. “Our system as it stands routinely takes for granted people who live in at least 35 states.”
“If you’re looking at swing states versus safe states,” he adds, “participation is about 10 percent higher in battleground states than safe states or flyover states.”
Of course, a shift to a national popular vote wouldn’t be a cure-all for the electoral system. In most states, people in prisons can’t vote—some states bar convicted felons from voting altogether—and some Republicans continue to target African-Americans and Hispanics with voter-suppression tactics.
Ditching the Electoral College won’t solve those problems. But if the goal is to make sure every living person of voting age can fully participate in their democracy, it’s a real fine place to start. v