“The Electoral College Makes a Coup Very Tempting”

Jamelle Bouie’s new column applauds the bipartisan Senate bill to revise the Electoral Count Act but prefer to eliminate the Electoral College and replace it with a national popular vote. After detailing provisions of the bill, he sums up: “I don’t know whether the bill can actually pass the Senate, but it is a good bill. It blocks many of the most immediate threats to presidential elections and closes most avenues for postelection subversion under the current system.”

Then the column pivots to a critique of the Electoral College system itself (with which I agree but remains out of reach for the historical reasons that Alex Keyssar has detailed). Quoting Kate Shaw’s Michigan Law Review essay, the column highlights the psychological dimension of the Electoral College’s effect on American democracy:

It “frames elections more as complex puzzles or logic games than as singularly important moments in self-governance,” the legal scholar Katherine Shaw notes in an article for the Michigan Law Review. In a similar manner, the ultimate winner-take-all nature of the system short-circuits any nuanced understanding of the political geography of the United States. “We color-code the country in red and blue, eliding the fact that Americans of all political identities reside in every county and every state,” Shaw writes. “This coding may well have primed a portion of the electorate to accept outlandish claims of election fraud when a state like Georgia, one that had for decades been reliably ‘red,’ shifted to the ‘blue’ column.”

In addition to preferring a national popular vote to the current Electoral College system, with winner-take-all in all but two of the states, the column considers “the proportional allocation of electors (which already exists in both Maine and Nebraska) or some hybrid of the two”–meaning, I think, by “hybrid” some combination of more states using the Maine/Nebraska method, while others remain winner-take-all. (Some states, whether in an interstate compact or each on its own, could choose to appoint their electors based on the plurality winner of the national popular vote, but it still would be a winner-take-all system for that specific state’s electoral votes, leaving others states to use the Maine-Nebraska version of proportional allocation.)

For reasons I’ve explored previously, I think increased partial use of the Maine-Nebraska system is dangerous and could yield partisan manipulation by state legislatures of the method of appointing electors, as occurred early in the nation’s history before the Electoral College system settled into the predominance of winner-take-all. If Pennsylvania and Virginia for example were to switch to the Maine-Nebraska method, while Texas and Ohio remain winner-take-all, that would change the electoral playfield dramatically compared to the current Electoral College map. Moreover, relying on congressional districts to allocate electoral votes, as Maine and Nebraska do, would incorporate into presidential elections the geographic effect of the urban-rural divide (and this is true whether or not a state’s redistricting engages in additional partisan gerrymandering beyond the “natural” effect of geographic sorting).

The column ends on a point with which I wholeheartedly agree: “the most important safeguard for our electoral system isn’t a particular set of rules and arrangements, but political actors who accept defeat, honor the results of an election and allow the winner to take and exercise the power to which they’re entitled. And it is a serious, possibly existential problem for American democracy that a large part of one of our two major parties just doesn’t want to play ball.”

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