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Let's shut down the Electoral College

Editorialist Bob Keeler reports that we should let the popular vote determine who should lead this country and that the Electoral College is outdated

Posted on
Nov 14, 2016

This editorial first appeared in Newsday.

Once again, the founding generation of this nation — the people we revere, carve into mountainsides, and write hit musicals about — have left us in a totally unacceptable position: For the second time in 16 years, the person who reaped the most popular votes did not win the presidency.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore had more than 540,000 more votes than Texas Gov. George W. Bush. This time, Hillary Clinton has just south of 400,000 more votes than Donald Trump — and some think the number could go far higher. Notice a pattern? Both times, it has been Republican candidates who have reaped the rewards of this deeply undemocratic system. So, with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, the possibility of a constitutional amendment to scrap the Electoral College is virtually zilch.

That’s not to say that Democrats are much more likely to launch the difficult process of adopting the amendment and sending it to the states for ratification. After Bush’s “election,” reform-the-college enthusiasm flared, then faded, understandably: Our Constitution is the most difficult in the world to amend. Thomas Jefferson argued for a significant overhaul every 19 years. But James Madison and others held that, once adopted, the Constitution should be treated with the same reverence as Scripture — and amended infrequently.

Of course, as with so much else that’s wrong with our country, its origins have a lot to do with slavery — what to do about slaves, who could work, but could not vote. Slave-owning James Madison was a major force both in inventing the Electoral College and in making the Constitution surpassingly difficult to amend. (Therapy suggestion: If you’re hating the Electoral College, growl the words James Madison over and over.)

The creation of this undemocratic contraption also had to do with the fears of the framers that the common folk really needed help in deciding on their leaders. So they would vote not for presidents but for electors, who would presumably be wise men — only men, back then — who would know better than the mob how to pick good leaders.

But as the Electoral College evolved, the electors turned out not to be the wisest. They were simply anonymous folks who agreed to cast their electoral votes for the candidate who got the most popular votes within their state.

Whatever fevered process was going on in the minds of the framers, what they gave us was a system that far too regularly produces election results that don’t reflect the will of the people. There’s little chance that it’s going away anytime soon — at least not by constitutional amendment.

The only possible fix for now is the National Popular Vote Compact. Each state that joins the compact agrees to cast its electoral votes for the person who got the most national popular votes. New York has joined. As soon as states representing 270 electoral votes have passed this legislation, it will take effect. Follow to watch its progress.

For now, the only thing we can do is utter a primal scream of outrage that this crazy injustice has happened again.

Bob Keeler is a former member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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