With the conclusion of Donald Trump’s chaotic government shutdown, Democrats can finally seize the bully pulpit. Inside the US Capitol, and on the already crowded 2020 campaign trail, they have a chance to identify their priorities.
This is an aspirational moment. And the partisans of the next American politics should seize it to speak in the boldest of terms. They should do so on behalf of economic and social and racial justice, and peace, and the planet. But they should also speak, bluntly, about how to make sure that history does not repeat itself.
Trump became president after getting crushed in the popular balloting of 2016 by almost 3 million votes. The only way the Republican loser got to occupy the Oval Office was through an archaic remnant from a founding moment when elites erected barriers to popular democracy: the Electoral College.
Trump wasn’t the first loser-winner. Before Trump, George W. Bush lost the 2000 popular vote but still slid into office thanks to the Electoral College—and an assist from a Republican-friendly US Supreme Court. So two Republican losers have “won” the presidency in 16 years. That should be a lesson for Democrats. The Electoral College is not their friend.
It should also be a lesson for independents and honorable Republicans, who must recognize that a system that regularly puts losers in power undermines confidence in elections and governance. Even Trump admitted back in 2012—when he was tweeting as an angry rich guy rather than as a desperate president—that “the Electoral College is a disaster for a democracy.”
Representative Steve Cohen, the Tennessee Democrat who chairs the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, is one of the president’s sharpest critics. But he agrees that the Electoral College is a disaster.
“In two presidential elections since 2000, including the most recent one in which Hillary Clinton won 2.8 million more votes than her opponent, the winner of the popular vote did not win the election because of the distorting effect of the outdated Electoral College,” says Cohen. “Americans expect and deserve the winner of the popular vote to win office.”
Cohen proposes to do just that with H.J.Res.7, a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the Electoral College and provide for the direct election of the president and vice president of the United States.
Amendments require a two-thirds vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, which is a tall hurdle. But the process has to start somewhere. And Cohen’s has provided that starting point.
It’s not the only beginning. A state-based effort to upend the Electoral College in the short term, with the National Popular Vote compact—which commits states to give their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote—is gaining traction. Colorado legislators are working on the issue this week as one of their first priorities of 2019. They want their state to follow eleven others and the District of Columbia in backing the compact—which would go into operation only after states with a majority of the Electoral College votes embrace it.
What’s most important is the message that the Electoral College can no longer dictate the elevation of popular-vote losers to the presidency. More power to legislators who are working in the states. But House Democrats must also lead, and can do so by signing on as cosponsors of Cohen’s necessary measure.
The same goes for the many senators who would be president, and who should follow the lead of Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley in making the elimination of the Electoral College central to the legislating and to their campaigning.
Steve Cohen’s sense urgency on this issue is absolutely appropriate.
“More than a century ago, we amended our Constitution to provide for the direct election of US Senators,” says the congressman from Memphis. “It is past time to directly elect our president and vice president.”