We hear this talk every four years about abolishing the Electoral College, and especially when a presidential candidate wins the popular vote, but loses the electoral vote.
Critics say the Electoral College is outdated, and that the only fair way to elect a president is through the popular vote – which was won by Hillary Clinton. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California announced that she was filing legislation to get rid of the Electoral College – which will go nowhere, and for a good reason. Do you know what we’d get by letting the popular vote decide the presidential election winner?
Welcome to Bulgaria.
“The Bulgarian election had 22 candidates, and 22 parties represented in that field,” said Brian Ellison, director of the Martin School of Political Science at the University of Idaho.
There are quite a few candidates and parties on the U.S. ballots as is. But for all the flaws of the Electoral College, it does a good job of narrowing the field. In any state, only two candidates have a realistic chance of winning the electoral votes – the Republican and Democrat nominees. Open it up to the popular vote, and you’d have a political demolition derby.
Forget the primaries. Anybody who thinks he/she could get 15-20 percent of the popular vote nationally would be running. Without an Electoral College this year, we could have a jungle election that would include the 17 Republicans and four Democrats who ran for president this year. There would be no way to keep those names off the ballot.
We could be looking at President-elect Jeb Bush with 17 percent of the popular vote, barely beating out Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz. Donald Trump and Clinton could be making vacation plans … in Bulgaria, for all anyone would care.
Don’t worry. It’s never going to happen.
“The abolition of the Electoral College is virtually beyond reach, requiring a constitutional amendment with super-majority approval requirements,” said Jim Weatherby of Boise, a longtime political professor, and consultant. “It would happen only if members of Congress and state legislators in some smaller states voted to relinquish their voting advantage.”
Imagine the Idaho Legislature willingly handing over more power to the federal government. In a practical world, Ellison says, “Why would a state want to turn over an extraordinary gift to the federal government?”
But Ellison also understands the flip side of the argument.
“There is a problem with under-representation,” he said. “The top 100 cities represent 75 percent of the GDP (Gross Development Product). We are a nation of metropolitan areas with metropolitan values. Only 2 percent of the people are involved in agriculture.”
He makes a valid point. A popular vote surely would change the dynamics of a presidential campaign. Candidates would concentrate heavily in California, New York, and Chicago. There would be no such thing as “battleground” states, and no reason for candidates to swoop into small towns of Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina or Florida. There would be no need to visit places such as Reno during the stretch run of a campaign.
Reno, which brands itself as “the biggest little city in the world,” was one of America’s political hot spots during the campaign. My nephew, Ryan Malloy, who lives in nearby Fernley, enjoyed the attention from the two major candidates. “We felt pretty important,” he said.
People in Nevada were pretty important to the candidates, who viewed those four electoral votes as a potential difference-maker in the election. As it turns out, it wasn’t. But Nevada was seen as a toss-up state right to the end, and candidates treated it accordingly.
“They wouldn’t be anywhere close to Reno with a direct popular vote,” Weatherby said. He adds that voters who are not in one of the handfuls of swing states also are ignored. Idaho, which went heavy for Trump, was not one of those swing states and the major candidates stayed away.
But on balance, it seems more “American” to me for candidates put their resources on every nook and cranny in the battleground states than confining their campaigns to the big cities
Weatherby sees another practical reason for steering clear of the popular vote. “In a close election, how would national recounts be conducted among the 51 separate elections?”
Thankfully, we’ll never have to find out.
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly and an editorial writer with the Idaho Press-Tribune.