This Is What's Wrong With How We Elect a President—And How to Fix It

Many Americans think their president is elected by majority rule, but in actuality, the Electoral College—the mechanism by which the president is formally elected—is decidedly not a one-person-one-vote system. In fact, two of the last five presidential elections have been won by the candidate who lost the popular vote, making voting Americans feel increasingly disenfranchised. This often-criticized system comes under renewed fire by New York Times editorial board member Jesse Wegman in this excerpt from his new book, Let the People Pick the President, in which he proposes an alternative that would make every citizen's vote matter—an ever-more important issue to many Americans as we approach the 2020 presidential election.

Our nation was conceived out of the audacious, world-changing idea of universal human equality. And though it was born in a snarl of prejudice, mistrust and exclusion, over generations those principles—slowly but surely—have found expression. This evolution has brought us to a point at which all Americans now carry around the basic expectations of people living in any modern democracy: we are political equals, and our elections are decided by majority rule.

Winner-take-all laws award all of a state’s electors to the candidate with the most votes, no matter how razor slim the margin, significantly affecting the nationwide results. Shana Novak/Getty

However, the Electoral College violates the core democratic principles of political equality and majority rule. While we may now all be eligible to vote for president, all of our votes do not count the same, and the candidate who gets the most votes can lose. Therefore, if the arc of American history bends toward more equality, more participation and more democracy, then the national popular vote is the last major point on that arc. The Electoral College is the final obstacle remaining from the imperfections and built-in inequalities of the nation's founding. And we can do something about it.

But what, exactly?

Since the first proposed amendment to the Electoral College was introduced in Congress in 1797, there have been more than 700 attempts to reform or abolish it—more than for any other provision of the Constitution. Only one has succeeded: the 12th Amendment was ratified in 1804 to fix a technical flaw in the College's design but left it otherwise intact.

One attempt at an amendment to replace the College with a national popular vote in the 1960s came very close. It passed the House and came extraordinarily close in the Senate before being blocked by filibuster, while also enjoying the support of President Richard Nixon and 80 percent of the American public. Especially after that failed effort, when American politics was far less polarized than today, and there was no simple partisan divide over the issue, it's clear that a constitutional amendment is not in the cards. But there may be another way.

A Compact Among States

It's called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact—an agreement among states to award all of their electors to the winner of the national popular vote, rather than the winner of their statewide vote. The compact will take effect when it is joined by states representing a majority of electoral votes, 270, thus guaranteeing that the candidate who wins the most votes becomes president.

The ingenuity of the compact is that it doesn't touch the Constitution. Its target is the statewide winner-take-all rule. Currently in use by 48 states (Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions), this rule is what makes presidents out of popular vote losers. It incentivizes presidential campaigns to ignore more than 100 million American voters living in noncompetitive states, turning what should be a national electoral contest into a series of bitter, hyperlocal brawls. It focuses nearly all campaign spending and policy proposals on a few battleground states, where even a small shift in voting can lead to an electoral jackpot for one side or the other.

That familiar red and blue map we obsess over every four years? It's nothing but a visual representation of state winner-take-all rules, with each state stamped Democratic or Republican, regardless of how many voters from the other party cast a ballot there.

This is bad for democracy, and it should concern all Americans, no matter where they live or which political party they support. In contrast, when candidates know that all votes are equal, and they need a majority of them to win, they are forced to seek the support of all Americans and craft policies that appeal to as many as possible.

The popular vote compact was launched in 2006 and got its first member state, Maryland, the following year. As of October 2019, 15 states and the District of Columbia, together representing 196 electoral votes, had joined—74 more and the compact takes effect. So far, only Democratic- majority states have joined the compact, and while the 2016 election dealt a significant setback to efforts to enlist Republican-led states, lawmakers of both parties around the country continue to support it, and Republican-led chambers have passed it in four states.

Critics of the compact effort call it an "end run" around the Constitution. It's true that the Constitution's framers never mentioned something like a popular vote compact. They also never mentioned the winner-take-all rule, but that didn't stop the majority of states from rapidly adopting it to benefit themselves. That's the whole point of the compact: the framers gave states near-total control over how to allocate their electors.

Why Now?

Today, after the popular vote loser has won the presidency in two of the past five elections—in 2000 and 2016—it is an issue of immediate concern to millions of Americans.

If we really thought the Electoral College was the best way to choose a president, we wouldn't have tried to reform or abolish it more than 700 times. We wouldn't have expressed a consistent and overwhelming support for the popular vote, as has been the case since polling on the question began in the 1940s.

And Donald Trump wouldn't have tweeted, as he did on Election Night 2012, when for a moment it looked like his candidate, Mitt Romney, might win the popular vote but lose the presidency, "The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy." (He followed that one up with another tweet that he later deleted: "More votes equals a loss...revolution!")

It's simple: Americans from the founding fathers onward have considered majority rule to be the lodestar of our political system. That's the way we run every election in the country—except the most important one of all.

So why has the College survived? More than anything else, because one party or the other, and sometimes both, believes it gives them a systematic advantage. As the political scientist James MacGregor Burns said in 1963, "The Electoral College is not just a technical electoral procedure. It is steeped in politics—it affects the balance of parties, the power of interest groups, the strength of ideologies, the fates of politicians. Hence it cannot be considered apart from the political context in which it operates. It is part of the whole solar system of our Government, and any effort to change it will disturb the whole system."

But it's also true that the country cannot tolerate the College's effects under the winner-take-all rule much longer. Pundits tend to dismiss the elections of 2000 and 2016 as anomalies, but what's remarkable is not that a split between the Electoral College and the popular vote has happened twice in the past two decades, it's that it hasn't happened far more often. In 16 other elections, a shift of 75,000 votes or fewer in key states—just slightly less than Trump's total victory margin in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin—would have made the popular-vote loser the president. Six times, a shift of fewer than 10,000 votes would have done the trick.

The odds of a split are only going up as the country grows more polarized and razor-thin vote margins become the norm. Two recent studies have found that, in an election decided by a popular-vote margin of 2 percent or less (roughly 2.6 million votes), there is a one-in-three chance that the Electoral College will be won by the popular-vote loser.

At the same time, we are witnessing a sea change among the newest generation of voters—the millions of teenagers now entering the American electorate, all of them born long after the Constitution was amended to guarantee their right to vote at age 18. They believe in the legitimacy of the democratic process. Think of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who transformed the unfathomable trauma they endured into a national movement for political change. They're invested in the idea of active democratic citizenship, and they want their peers to be too. How will those students feel when they realize that their vote for president doesn't matter, simply because they happen to have moved to California, or Texas, or South Carolina, or New York—or any other noncompetitive state?

Thus, it's no surprise that in 2020, the future of the Electoral College is a live issue in the presidential race. Nearly a dozen of the original Democratic candidates called for abolishing it and replacing it with a national popular vote. President Trump himself has agreed, at least in theory. "I would rather have a popular election," he said as late as 2018. "To me, it's much easier to win the popular vote."

Majority Should Rule

More than half a century ago, when America was last embroiled in a deep debate about the full scope of its democracy, the Supreme Court wrote, "The weight of a citizen's vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives." And yet under the winner-take-all Electoral College today, it does. In 2000, 537 votes in Florida weighed more than 537,000 votes in the rest of the country. In 2016, fewer than 78,000 votes in three states in the upper Midwest counted for more than three million votes nationwide.

Wouldn't it be thrilling to go to the polls knowing that your vote will count just as much as everyone else's, no matter where you live? Isn't it exciting to think about candidates competing everywhere for votes, and parties calibrating their platforms to appeal to all Americans, rather than to the interests of a few targeted constituencies in a few battleground states? In reality, the U.S. is one big battleground, and the people who want to lead it should have to treat it like one.

Everyone knows the famous opening words of the Constitution's preamble—"We the People of the United States..." What most people don't know is that those words weren't in the first draft. In its original form, the preamble read, "We the People of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island..." and so on, until the closing days of the convention, when Gouverneur Morris, a Pennsylvania delegate, changed the words to the ones we know today. The point was to emphasize what, above all, the framers were creating: one nation, indivisible.

→ From Let the People Pick the President. Copyright © 2020 by Jesse Wegman and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.

READ MORE: New York Times Editorial Board Member Jesse Wegman on Why We Should Abolish the Electoral College