Democrats despise the electoral college. Perhaps they should get over that

Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton with grim expressions
Hillary Clinton’s concession to Donald Trump in the early hours of Nov. 9, 2016, left many Democrats traumatized about the electoral college.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)
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Traumatized by the results of 2000 and 2016, when Republicans George W. Bush and Donald Trump won the presidency despite getting fewer votes than their Democratic opponents, many on the left and center-left have developed a deep aversion to the state-by-state counting of electoral votes, regarding it as both anti-democratic and anti-Democratic.

A Gallup poll taken in 2020, for example, found that roughly 9 in 10 Democrats favored abolishing the electoral college and choosing the president solely on the basis of who gets support from the most voters. Just 2 in 10 Republicans agreed.

Responding to that sentiment, lawmakers in 25 states — most of them with Democratic majorities — have voted for an interstate agreement designed to bypass the electoral college and choose the president by popular vote. It won’t be in effect for 2024, but could be by 2028.

The irony would be deep if Democrats succeeded in abolishing the system just in time for it to flip back in their favor.

Could that happen? Yes, and the tipping point is far closer than many people appear to believe.

A flawed system; a questionable reform

The electoral college has several flaws:

The system encourages presidential candidates to spend the lion’s share of time and energy on the few states whose votes are truly up for grabs — no more than eight this time around — although there’s not much evidence that those states gain anything other than a ton of political ads on television.


There’s the risk, small but not zero, of electors casting their votes for someone other than the candidate who won their state.

And because the system guarantees at least three electoral votes to each state and the District of Columbia, it amplifies the power of the very smallest jurisdictions. Wyoming’s 581,000 residents control three electoral votes; California’s 39 million have 54. On a proportional basis, that gives Wyoming’s overwhelmingly Republican residents almost four times the electoral clout of Californians. The same goes for the heavily Democratic voters of Vermont, who also get three electoral votes.

The flaw that attracts the most attention, however, is the system’s ability to elect a president who has support of a minority of voters nationwide — a feature that has delivered victories to Republicans twice in the last six elections.

That’s a rarity. As Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman recently documented on the Crystal Ball election site, the system is pretty unbiased most of the time: In the 19 presidential elections since the end of World War II, the results of the electoral college and the popular vote matched closely.

Usually, but not always.

In 1948, for example, the electoral college had a pronounced Republican tilt. Democratic President Harry Truman won anyway, but his margin in the electoral college was famously thin despite his healthy victory in the popular vote. In 2000, the Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore, was less lucky. A slight Republican tilt in the electoral college was enough to give Bush the White House after the Supreme Court declared him the winner in Florida. And, of course, in 2016, a fairly large Republican tilt in the electoral college handed the White House to Trump even though Hillary Clinton got more votes.

In 2020, President Biden overcame an even bigger electoral college bias to win: He took the popular vote by 4.5 percentage points but garnered only a 0.6% edge in electoral votes.

The reason the electoral college and the popular vote don’t always track is that election results are much closer in some states than others. In recent years, that’s had a lot to do with California.


In 2020, for example, Biden won the state by 29 points, garnering about 5 million more votes than he needed to capture its electoral votes. That swelled his national popular vote margin but didn’t gain him anything in the electoral college. The Democrat racked up a similarly disproportionate margin in New York, padding his popular vote margin by another couple million.

Meanwhile, elections in the swing states often turn on a few tens of thousands of voters.

Because most people pay attention to the electoral college only when something goes awry, and both of the anomalies in living memory favored the GOP, a lot of people assume the electoral vote always leans Republican. Not so.

In both of President Obama‘s victories, for example, the electoral vote had a Democratic bias although no one paid much attention. Since World War II, the electoral college has had a Democratic tilt nine times and a Republican one 10.

It could easily flip again. Just look at the results of the 2022 midterm elections, as Coleman and Kondik noted.

Suppose in the next election California and New York remain blue, but Democratic margins shrink a bit. And suppose that at the same time, Democrats win the swing states.

That pretty much describes what happened in 2022: Republicans ate into the Democratic margins in California and New York, and in the aggregate, their candidates for the House got more votes. But Democrats swept the field in statewide races in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania and won Senate races in Nevada, Georgia and New Hampshire.


If those results had occurred in a presidential race, Democrats would have lost the popular vote but won the electoral college vote.

That brings us to the proposed National Interstate Popular Vote Compact, which is designed to short-circuit the electoral college without amending the Constitution. The idea is that states would mutually agree to give their electoral votes to whichever candidate won the national popular vote, not the candidate who won each individual state. The compact would go into effect if it’s enacted by states that together account for 270 electoral votes, a majority of the electoral college.

The California Legislature approved the compact in 2011, with sponsors arguing that it would prod candidates to pay more attention to the state. At the time, it was very much a theoretical proposition. A dozen years later, it’s seeming more real. States with 205 electoral votes have signed on.

So imagine it’s election night 2028, and the popular vote compact is in effect. Democratic candidate Gretchen Whitmer has won California by 20 points and carried the big swing states, but appears to have lost the nationwide popular vote to Republican Ron DeSantis, who racks up big margins in Florida and Texas. Would California voters really be OK with the state’s electoral votes going to make DeSantis president?

The question is made more acute by the fact that support for abolishing the electoral college has come almost entirely from one side of the aisle. Republican leaders are happy to see Democratic states give up control of their electoral votes, but they have no intention of doing so themselves.

The same thing has happened with other political reforms. Consider redistricting: California and several other large, Democratic-majority states have adopted nonpartisan commissions to draw political district lines. Republican states have declined, and in some states, like Ohio and Florida, where voters approved limits on gerrymanders, Republican lawmakers have flouted them.


As a result, the U.S. effectively has two systems for drawing election boundaries — a highly partisan one used by Republican-majority states as well as some Democratic ones and a less partisan system used exclusively in blue and purple jurisdictions. That asymmetry has helped Republicans obtain a House majority.

Backers of the popular vote plan say their reform would be safe against partisan mischief — victory would go to the popular vote winner regardless of party. But the history of politics is a repeated tale of unexpected consequences. Given the partisan imbalance on this one, California lawmakers should consider whether they still want to disarm their side if the opposition won’t do likewise.

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