Long live the Electoral College

Win Gruening

In the weeks following America’s historic presidential election, Trump detractors continue to offer reasons why Hillary Clinton lost. Yet the litany of excuses continues to ignore the flaws in the candidate that were largely responsible for her defeat.

The Democratic mantra is that it’s “undemocratic” that Hillary Clinton lost in the Electoral College but won the popular vote by the largest margin in history — around 2.8 million votes. However, as a percentage of the popular vote (a fairer comparison), this ranks right in the middle of presidential elections where this has occurred.

More to the point, Clinton won one state, California, by 4.3 million votes. So, while she would have won President of California by a landslide, taking that one state out of the equation results in her losing the national popular vote by 1.5 million votes.

Hillary defenders and apologists have cited racism, sexism, misogyny, voter ID laws, the FBI and Russian hacking for Clinton’s defeat. And finally, the Electoral College is at fault and needs to be abolished.

Although this is the fifth time in U.S. history the winner of the popular vote lost the presidency, many Democrats remain obsessed with why this happened. Yet, House races are also reflective of the national mood and Republicans received 3 million more votes than Democrats did in those 435 contests. Given those numbers it’s hard to argue that our incoming president lacks legitimacy.

Lost in this controversy is another seldom mentioned fact. There were 24 U.S. presidents elected that did not receive a popular vote majority. In other words, candidates may have won a plurality of the popular vote but not a majority.

Indeed, this happened most notably in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln won 60 percent of the electoral vote but only 39 percent of the popular vote — the lowest percentage of popular vote ever received by a winning president.

Even Hillary Clinton did not receive a popular vote majority due to votes for third-party candidates.

This points out the real danger we face when tinkering with the Electoral College — not that a future president wouldn’t receive the most popular votes but that he or she wouldn’t be representative of the country at all.

Without the Electoral College, it’s possible to envision a scenario where a third-party candidate wins a presidential election with less than 40 percent of the popular vote — mostly from a handful of large states — but lacks any sort of geographic representation across the country. What the Electoral College provides is a guarantee that whomever is elected is supported by a diverse cross-section of the country — not just a few populous states — like California or New York.

We should all be careful what we wish for. Like other questionable tactics employed by Democrats in the past eight years, a change to our electoral system could perversely work against them. For example, when Harry Reid decided to use the “nuclear option” in confirming lower court judges and presidential cabinet appointments he set a precedent. To the Democrats’ regret, now they no longer have control of the Senate, this limits their ability to influence future Republican presidential appointments. After President Obama used sweeping executive authority to bypass Congress, cries by Democrats will fall on deaf ears when the same authority is exercised by a Republican president.

Likewise, abolishing the Electoral College embodied in our Constitution should not just be a knee-jerk reaction to losing an election. One of the likely outcomes of such a change would be to increase the number of minority political parties — in effect lessening the power of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Ironically, one could argue that just as third-party candidates contributed to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat, abolishment of the Electoral College could make this more likely for a major party candidate in the future.

Not surprisingly, controversy about the Electoral College has been a constant in presidential politics. Over the course of 200 years, the Electoral College has been the target of more than 700 repeal or reform proposals, according to the National Archives and Records Administration. None of those proposals ever received serious attention.

Abolishing the Electoral College requires a constitutional amendment passed by a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures. This is highly unlikely given the political realities of our current electoral map since Republicans now control both houses of Congress, 69 of 99 state legislatures, and two-thirds of the governorships.

Rather than looking to a constitutional amendment, advocates of a closer link between the popular vote and the presidential outcome would be better served by confronting the real reasons Democrats lost the election and make appropriate changes to address the main concerns shared by a majority of Americans.

Win Gruening was born and raised in Juneau and retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He is active in civic affairs at the local, state, and national level.