Thank you, Elizabeth Warren.
The 2020 Democratic presidential contender went to Mississippi this week and made the case against the Electoral College where it matters the most. “We need to make sure that every vote counts. And you know, I want to push that right here in Mississippi. Because I think this is an important point,” she explained at a CNN town-hall event in Jackson, where she endorsed choosing the president with a national popular vote. “That,” declared Warren, “means get rid of the Electoral College.”
Mississippi is the perfect place to talk about getting rid of the antiquated mechanism of oligarchy that wealthy plantation owners championed more than two centuries ago in order to thwart popular democracy.
In the 2016 presidential election, Mississippi ranked number 43 in overall turnout. The highest-turnout states—Minnesota, Maine, New Hampshire, Colorado and Wisconsin—had participation rates that went over 70 percent. Mississippi was just above 55 percent. This has something to do with the fact that high-turnout states make it easy to vote, while Mississippi does not. But it also has something to do with the fact that, unlike the high-turnout states, Mississippi rarely if ever sees serious competition for its electoral votes.
As Warren explained, “You know come a general election, presidential candidates don’t come to places like Mississippi. They also don’t come to places like California and Massachusetts, because we’re not the battleground states. But my view is that every vote matters. And the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting.”
The last time Mississippi had a close presidential vote was in 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan took 49 percent of the ballots (and all the state’s electoral votes) versus 48 percent for Democrat Jimmy Carter. Democrat Hillary Clinton won just 40 percent of the vote in Mississippi in 2016, versus 58 percent for Republican Donald Trump—but that 40 percent added up to almost 500,000 votes, and the figure would undoubtedly have gone higher if more voters thought their ballots might be a deciding factor into the popular-vote competition.
Apologists for the Electoral College frequently suggest that its elimination would steer all campaigning toward a handful of big states and major metropolitan areas. They’re wrong. Without the skewing of the process to focus on the so-called “battleground” states where the balance can be tipped in the Electoral College, candidates would be freed to make appeals to voters in every part of the country—with an emphasis on generating high turnout in regions of states where their party, or their particular candidacy, has strength.
Candidates seeking to win the national popular vote would, of course, make national appeals. But any smart strategy would recognize the need for campaigning and mounting voter-turnout drives in states that may not be Electoral College “battlegrounds” but that are home to rich concentrations of friendly potential voters.
In Mississippi, a state with the highest African-American population in the country (37.3 percent of the populace), a burgeoning Hispanic population, and a large number of young people who might be mobilized as progressive voters, Democratic presidential nominees would have every reason to make campaign swings and invest campaign dollars with an eye toward maximizing turnout in cities, counties, and regions that in recent presidential elections have given overwhelming support to the party’s candidates.
Not just campaigning but engaged and thoughtful messaging on critical issues could be targeted to register voters and build turnout in the Mississippi Delta and regions of Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee where voters have consistently given solid backing to Democratic nominees but have not seen their states cast electoral votes for a Democrat in almost a quarter-century. (The last Democratic winner was Bill Clinton, who carried Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee, and came within a few points of taking Mississippi, in the three-way contest of 1996.)
The same goes for progressive regions of so-called “red states” across the South and the interior West—where big cities, college towns, rural areas with large Hispanic and Native American populations, and historically populist farm regions can produce substantial Democratic turnouts.
Amending the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College—or simply upending the Electoral College with a National Popular Vote Interstate Compact agreement among states and the District of Columbia to award all electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the nationwide balloting—would change our politics for the better. It would force candidates of both parties to spend more time in more places.
Dozens of states have suffered from this neglect, among them Mississippi, where Elizabeth Warren took her campaign this week. Warren was right to go to Mississippi; she was right to endorse sweeping electoral reforms; and she was right to put those reforms in context with a declaration that “I think everybody ought to have to come and ask for your vote.”