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We Could Be Closer to Eliminating the Criminally Undemocratic Electoral College

Republicans have staunchly defended the Electoral College for years, but they may soon find that the only way to remain a viable national party is to support a national popular vote. That could open the door to finally eliminating the terribly undemocratic Electoral College.

Today, the Republican Party can only capture the White House through the counter-majoritarian mechanisms of the Electoral College. (Clay Banks / Unsplash)

The time between Election Day in November and Inauguration Day in January is usually pretty sleepy. Before 2020, only academics and the most fanatical political junkies could tell you the name of Georgia’s secretary of state, or the Electoral College meeting date, or that a joint session of Congress convenes to certify each state’s electoral vote count on January 6.

In so many ways, this year is different. While none of his bluster is likely to work, President Trump refuses to go quietly into the night like Al Gore did after the fiercely contested 2000 election. Instead of a mere formality, congressional certification of the election results became the occasion for one of the most surreal quasi-putsch attempts in modern history, as Proud Boys, QAnon fanatics, and guys wearing animal skins stormed the Capitol on behalf of their Maximum Leader.

It was a farce, but it was not funny at all. Millions of Americans and scores of Republican politicians have followed Trump into a vortex that it will be very difficult to pull the GOP and the country at large out of.

Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and the other Republicans who challenged the election results didn’t just raise the specter of open conflict among Senate Republicans — a rarity under Mitch McConnell’s bulletproof leadership — and a bitter intra-party battle over the future of the GOP. They also forced Republicans who disagreed with them to defend the Electoral College on explicitly partisan and counter-majoritarian lines.

On the first day of the new Congress, Kentucky representative Thomas Massie and six other Republicans released a statement opposing the attempt to overturn the election results in Congress. Part of it reads like a principled conservative defense of states’ rights against federal interference in their affairs, which including the appointment of electors. The rest of it is remarkable for its candor regarding the Republicans’ inability to win a popular majority in presidential elections.

“From a purely partisan perspective,” they write, “Republican presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once in the last 32 years. They have therefore depended on the electoral college for nearly all presidential victories in the last generation.” Republicans have used their recent Electoral College advantage, together with the minoritarian, rural bias of the Senate and the systematic underrepresentation of Democratic voters in the House, to implement wildly unpopular policies and stack the Supreme Court with right-wing justices. Massie and his allies realize they’re playing with house money, and that Republicans should quit while they’re ahead to preserve the “only path to victory in 2024.”

It is certainly true that today’s Republican Party can only capture the White House through the counter-majoritarian mechanisms of the Electoral College. But as the historian Alexander Keyssar demonstrates in his definitive study Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, many Republican politicians and voters supported reforms to the presidential system, including its replacement with a national popular vote, throughout the twentieth century. It was not until the disputed 2000 election that GOP attitudes toward the Electoral College began to seriously change, to the point where most Republicans now see it as an essential bulwark of white minority power.

Indeed, an aggressive commitment to nationalist, anti-immigrant, and reactionary politics defines the contemporary Republican coalition, which in turn has made defense of the Electoral College a necessary aspect of GOP political strategy. They wouldn’t necessarily need to do this if the party remained committed to George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” or the type of conservative politics that netted Chris Christie a majority of New Jersey’s Latino vote in his 2013 reelection campaign. They could instead compete in places where they’re currently toxic, and where the Adrenochrome Putsch will make them even more radioactive. The rise of the Republican far right, the ultimate result of the GOP’s transformation into a predominantly Southern and rural formation, has pushed the whole party into a corner it won’t be easy to get out of.

Republicans were against, or at least not necessarily enamored of, the Electoral College before they were for it. Could new political developments turn them against it yet again?

The intensity with which Trump and the Republicans contested the presidential election results in Georgia might indicate some of them can see the writing on the wall. If the GOP loses its grip on states like Georgia and Arizona, will North Carolina or even Texas be far behind? Joe Biden ultimately came up short in the latter two states. But he did not lose North Carolina’s fifteen electoral votes by much, and he arguably could have won Texas’s thirty-eight electoral votes if he had run a stronger campaign in the heavily Latino districts of the Rio Grande Valley, where both Bernie Sanders and Trump were popular. If the Democrats can regularly shift these states into their column, and the Republicans can’t regularly pull Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, or Minnesota into theirs, then the GOP will have no reliable path to the White House. The math simply will not be there.

The positions of the parties could then very well flip: the Democrats would become the party of the winner-take-all Electoral College, while the Republicans would scramble to find a way out of their self-imposed electoral cage. Republican-controlled state legislatures, particularly in states that sometimes vote for Democratic presidential candidates, would likely push to allocate electoral votes on a district basis — similar to what Maine and Nebraska currently do.

But this would also allow Democrats to pick off some electoral votes in states where they currently win none, and all of California’s and New York’s electoral votes would still go into the blue column. The result would be a crazy quilt of electoral vote apportionment, with each state’s patch reflecting its own particular partisan composition.

Would this sort of arrangement be broadly viewed as legitimate? Its very absurdity would, one hopes, call it into question and trigger a movement to replace it with a national popular vote for president, once and for all. Major elements of the Republican Party itself might even have an incentive to support it. A truly national presidential campaign would allow the GOP to unlock the millions of Republican votes in California, New York, Illinois, and other states that currently go to waste, and to bring out new voters where the race currently isn’t competitive. Some of the more sophisticated Republican strategists realize this, and events could very well strengthen their position in intraparty debates.

Most Republicans currently view a national popular vote as the road to oblivion. They might soon find it is the only way to save themselves as a viable national party.