Politics / October 2, 2023

A Modest but Serious Proposal for How to Save the GOP From Trump

The push to dump the Electoral College is often framed as a Democratic concern, but it might actually help the Republican Party more.

Elie Mystal
Donald Trump speaks at a political rally while campaigning for the GOP nomination in the 2024 election at Erie Insurance Arena in Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

A new PEW Research survey shows that 65 percent of Americans favor doing away with the Electoral College and moving toward a popular vote for president of the United States. That’s the highest approval rating for a national popular vote since 2000, when PEW began tracking the issue. Only 33 percent want to keep the Electoral College. 

The poll, naturally, makes me think: “What the hell is wrong with the 33 percent?” Why is basic democracy so scary to so many people?

The obvious answer to that question is “because Republicans.” The GOP candidate for president has lost seven of the last eight elections, as determined by the national popular vote, including the last four in a row. The party will almost surely lose the popular vote again in 2024. The Republican Party, as currently constituted, cannot win in a democracy, and that is so well understood that antidemocratic strategies are now baked into the party’s DNA. The Electoral College protects minority rule—and, because of the unequal distribution of people of color throughout the United States, it functionally protects white minority rule. Republicans don’t need a degree in political science to intuit that the majority doesn’t like them.

But when you dive into the numbers, the obvious answer gets a little more complicated. PEW reports that 47 percent of Republicans do favor a national popular vote, which is high given how critical the Electoral College is to the Republican hold on power. Meanwhile, only 82 percent of Democrats support a popular vote, which means one in five Democrats you bump into will actually try to defend the anachronistic scheme of giving more power to slave states and come off sounding like they’re in a Key & Peele sketch.

There are clearly people who believe that the Electoral College is “good” for reasons other than raw partisan politics. The arguments these people use to defend the Electoral College are legion, but most of them are based on a core misconception: that the Electoral College gives power to small, low-population states. Without it, voters in those states and the issues they care about will be ignored in favor of the concerns of New Yorkers and Californians, and city dwellers over rural communities.

Let me start by debunking the core premise of that argument. Nobody should have their vote matter more than somebody else. That is a core principle of democracy that goes all the way back to freaking ancient Athens (except for, you know, women and enslaved people in Athens). People who defend the Electoral College try to gloss over the fact that, under the current system, a voter in Wyoming is worth more than three and a half times more than a voter in California. That is wrong. That is antidemocratic. That is stupid. Even if the Electoral College served an important, modern function, it would still be wrong and antidemocratic and stupid. If we’re worried about voters in Wyoming being ignored, then we need to come up with some other way to address that issue than this 18th-century scheme of triple counting Wyoming’s votes.

There is another way of addressing the concerns of voters in low-population states: the antidemocratic institution known as the United States Senate. Voters in small states already get vastly more political representation than they deserve, because the Senate gives equal suffrage to land, instead of people. Now, I happen to think that the Senate should also be abolished, but as long as it’s here, the argument that the Electoral College is necessary to overrepresent small states is critically flawed. Small states already have too much power, thanks to the Senate. The argument that they should get even more through the Electoral College is just doubling down on an already bad idea.

But there’s an even more important flaw with the Electoral College than its purported focus on low-population states—and that’s the fact that it doesn’t even do what it claims to set out to do: The system doesn’t shift additional political power to smaller states; it shifts political power to “battleground” states. Florida is the third-most-populous state in the country; Pennsylvania is the fifth; Ohio is the seventh; Georgia is the eighth. Nearly all the states that get any attention from presidential campaigns in the lead-up to the general election (including Arizona and Wisconsin) rank in the top 25 for population.

Smaller states like Iowa (ranked 32nd), New Hampshire (ranked 41st), and South Carolina (ranked 23rd, so not quite as “small” as South Carolinians like to tell you) get a ton of political attention during the presidential primary process. But that is a function of how the parties organize their primary calendars, not the Electoral College. The Electoral College doesn’t favor small states; it favors large states where the votes are predicted to be close. Every voter, nonvoter, dog, cartoon mouse, and reasonably sentient swamp beast in Florida will get a personal appeal from a presidential candidate, because the state is huge and, until recently at least, relatively purple. Nobody goes to Arkansas because it’s small and already committed to voting for whichever candidate appears to be the most racist at the time. No campaign even stops in North Dakota to refuel.

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I doubt that campaigns would go to these places under a popular-vote system either, but I bet they’d spend more time talking about the issues that affect regions of the country that aren’t considered “battlegrounds.” If you are concerned about rural voters, then you should be demanding a national popular vote. That’s because the Electoral College favors candidates who can win population centers large enough to carry entire states. There are tons of rural voters in states like New York, California, and Pennsylvania, but we never hear about them in presidential elections, because both parties know that the city centers will overwhelm their voices and carry the states.

People who defend the Electoral College would have us believe that making some votes matter more is the only way to ensure that everybody has a voice. But just the opposite is true: Making everybody’s vote count equally is the way to make every vote matter. In a national popular vote scenario, it would be bad politics for presidential candidates to simply write off entire swaths of the country because they’re not going to win a statewide election there. In a national popular vote, getting votes from states you’d lose overall still has value, because all the votes are going into the same pot instead of 50 different ones.

For me, the final nail in the Electoral College coffin should be the warping effect it has on our entire national politics. The system actually encourages extremism and polarization, instead of broadly popular consensus ideas, because it makes close victories in large states worth more than overwhelming popular appeal.

To put it another way: A national popular vote is the only way I can see to save the Republicans from Trump, MAGA, and the white supremacists who have taken over their party. Republicans have lost seven of the last eight popular elections because, frankly, they can. It doesn’t matter that Republicans are less popular than the other guys, it matters only that they couldn’t… find 11,000 extra votes in Georgia. The party’s political strategy is to game the Electoral College system, not to convince a majority of Americans that the GOP deserves to be in charge.

Without the Electoral College, there’s no way the Republicans would have allowed themselves to lose seven of the last eight elections. The party would have changed, moderated, and adopted at least some of the broadly popular positions the Democrats run on—like reproductive rights. They might have gotten on board with the idea that LGBTQ people are people and deserve people rights. They might not have nominated a giant, fraudulent asshole in 2016, and certainly wouldn’t be about to renominate a soon-to-be-convicted felon who plotted to overthrow the government.

We know that getting repeatedly trounced by the popular will makes parties change, because we saw it happen to the Democrats. Ronald Reagan beat Democrats so badly, for so long, that there are still Democrats in office who wake up in the morning afraid Peggy Noonan has written something mean about them. Most of the party’s unwillingness to fight fascism can be traced back to Reagan PTSD; hell, it took only three failed presidential elections in a row for Bill Clinton to emerge to triangulate away most of the party’s old-school principles.

The Electoral College prevents Republicans from facing that kind of reckoning. Instead of running popular candidates, instead of running on popular issues, the Electoral College encourages Republicans to double down on cultural issues that are rejected by most of the country but still hold sway in states where there are enough aggrieved white people to drown out everybody else. You can’t win a national election on a platform of “We will stop drag queens from reading to children, but we won’t stop gunmen from shooting them,” but you can win Louisiana with that. Nationally, the Republican colonization of Ice Cube means nothing to Black voters, but if you’re only looking to suppress Black turnout in a couple of Midwestern cities, Cube might do you a solid.

I don’t think the 47 percent of Republicans who support a national popular vote are polling against their own interests. The Electoral College keeps Republicans locked into the politics of cultural grievance. A national popular vote would refocus Republicans on national issues that have broad appeal, instead of the ad campaign on a beer can.

Of course, with all due respect to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact—which involves states voluntarily agreeing to throw their electoral votes to the popular vote winner, which is something I don’t expect the Supreme Court to endorse by the time they next get a chance to pick the president in a close election—you need a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College. To make a constitutional amendment, you need to get three-fourths of the states to agree to ratify it.

Like I said, small states already have too much political power in this country. The idea that land should have more political power than people is one of the fundamental flaws with this country.

Elie Mystal

Elie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent and the host of its legal podcast, Contempt of Court. He is also an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center. His first book is the New York Times bestseller Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution, published by The New Press. Elie can be followed @ElieNYC.

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