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The Exchange

Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?

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 Twice in the past twenty years, the Presidential candidate who won more votes still lost the election. We discuss how the electoral college came about and how it works. We also delve into its problematic past and how it could be replaced.  But the Electoral College is not without its defenders, who feel it protects small states and reflects the wisdom of the founders. What do you think and why? 

Airdate: Monday, Nov. 2, 2020

GUESTS:

 
Watch Jesse Wegman’s explainer video on how President Trump could win the election — even if he loses.

Does your vote count? The Electoral College explained by Christina Greer:

Transcript

This transcript is machine-generated and contains errors.

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy and this is The Exchange. The Electoral College, should we keep it or toss it five times in American history? The presidential candidate who more Americans voted for lost the election. This has happened twice in just the past 20 years, thereby amplifying calls to get rid of the Electoral College today. In exchange, why do we have the Electoral College and should we keep it or change it? Listeners, tell us what you think. Should the Electoral College stay or go? Is there a way to make it better? Email us that exchange at any nhpr.org. Once again, exchange at Nhpr.org. Use Facebook or call one 800 989 two six four seven seven.

Laura Knoy:
We're talking this hour with Christina Greer, associate professor of political science and American Studies at Fordham University, and Jessie Wegman, member of the editorial board of The New York Times and author of "Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College." A big welcome to both of you. And we'll talk in a moment about why we have this system where it comes from. But first, Professor Greer, please, can we just clarify how it works? How is the number of electors each state gets decided? And why is it often, said, Professor Greer, that small states like New Hampshire get a disproportionately larger voice in the Electoral College? So go ahead.

Christina Greer:
Thanks. Morning, Laura. Well, you know, the framers intended for the executive to be put into office through indirect democracy. So we know that we directly vote for our senators and our members of the House. We know that we do not vote for our members of the Supreme Court. That's the president nominates them and the Senate confirms them. So for the executive, which is in Article two of the Constitution, they set up this somewhat obscure electoral college system, which is one of the most complicated in the world. And so it's based on proportional representation. So if you look at the map of the United States, the total number of electors is 538. That's 435 435 members of the House, 100 in the Senate, plus the three from D.C. That makes it 538. And then we translate that to electors. This is also why filling out the census is so important, because based on the population of your state, that's the number of electors you receive for the Electoral College. And so moving forward, a place like Rhode Island or I like to use South Dakota, North Dakota or Wyoming, states that are very large in size but very small in population, tend to send, you know, North Dakota and South Dakota, you put them together, they send three electors for the for the presidency. And so moving forward, it seems to give big states an unfair advantage. We know that many presidential candidates focus on those states, but since they've been calcified either as red or blue in the past few years, then we sort of see candidates picking up these sort of mid-states and focusing on them so that they can get to the magic number of 270.

Laura Knoy:
And we're going to be hearing a lot about 270 on tomorrow, I'm sure. Professor Greer. So why is it, said, Professor Greer, that the Electoral College often favors small states? I mean, sure, they have a total gross number of electors that's much smaller than in New York or California. But proportionally, Professor Greer, people say this system actually favors the little guys.

Christina Greer:
Well, and the framers intended to make it such that they were trying to balance it out as much as possible. So we see this just even in Congress, right? A state like Rhode Island has two senators, as does a state like California. I might even say a state like New Hampshire has the same number of senators as a state like Texas. But for the Electoral College, smaller states still matter because we want to make sure that presidents or presidential candidates don't just focus on essentially the 11 states that could deliver them to a 270 win. And so based on this proportional representation, again, from the census makes it such that, you know, even though Rhode Island or New Hampshire is quite small, those citizens still need representation. And so obviously, people from the larger states, which tend to be a lot more diverse in a whole host of ways, but we do tend to focus on racial and ethnic and religious diversity. But those big states actually oftentimes have people who are packed into cities which tend to to make a state, say, lopsided blue, but the representation of the people in smaller states, it's argued that they should still have some sort of reason why presidents and presidential candidates actually come to their states and ask for their vote and present some sort of policy issues.

Laura Knoy:
So, Jesse Wegman, not to get too mathematical first thing in the morning, but here's one analysis that I saw. Wyoming has one electoral college vote for every 193 thousand people compared with California's rate of one electoral vote per 718,000 people. So according to this analysis, this means each electoral vote in California represents over three times as many people as one in Wyoming and these disparities are, of course, repeated across the country, depending on which states you look at, what do you think about that, Jesse?

Jesse Wegman:
Well, you know, it's it is the thing that a lot of people focus on and they say, you know, a Wyoming voter has almost four times the power in the Electoral College as a California voter. And, you know, technically that's true. And that's because of what you were just discussing, which is that the electors that each state gets are based on their representation in Congress, which means they're members of the House, plus their two senators.

Jesse Wegman:
Those two senators obviously give every state equal power in the Senate. And so that little that distortion carries over into the Electoral College. As Professor Greer said, Wyoming gets the same number of senators that California gets, even though California has 40 times the population I'm sorry, 80 times the population of Wyoming. But that said, I just want to be really clear that that is a very minor distortion in the way the Electoral College functions today. And that's because of this other thing that Professor Greer touched on, which is the red and blue that we talk about. Right. And the reason that we color states red and blue is is just really a visual representation of something called the winner-take-all law. And that is something that, unlike the number of electors that each each state gets that way of awarding electors through winner-take-all is not in the Constitution. It's something that states decide for themselves. That is the real distortion caused by the way the Electoral College functions today, because it means that every state essentially erases every voter who doesn't vote for the candidate who gets the most votes in their state. Right. The the winner of the state's popular vote. And that happens in New Hampshire. And it happens in California and it happens in Texas. It happens everywhere but two states in the country, Maine and Nebraska. So I really think we should focus our attention not on the relatively minor distortions caused by those extra two electors that the states get for their senators, but instead on these statewide winner-take-all laws which have throughout American history, caused by far the greatest distortion in the representation of the polity.

Laura Knoy:
Ok, so you're saying, Jesse, that's the X Factor, really. There is a distortion in terms of how electors are allocated in small states. Get a you know, get a bump up, get that advantage that we talked about. But you're saying the real problem is this winner-take-all system. If you and I were competing, Jesse, in Texas and you got 51 percent and I got 49 percent, you'd get everything even though I came darn close.

Jesse Wegman:
That's exactly right. And as a result, you erased millions of voters who are just as valid in the outcome of the presidency and whose voice should be heard just as much in the outcome of the presidency as the people who just had a couple of percent more.

Laura Knoy:
Well, we got lots of Facebook comments before the show. We're looking at the Electoral College once again on The Exchange. We've talked about this a lot over the past 25 years. And both of you day from Suncook is calling in. Hi, Dave. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
Thanks. I am opposed to having a national popular vote for practical reasons, the idea of a nationwide recount of hundreds of millions of votes is a very daunting challenge. But I would also like to point out the potential for voter suppression and dirty tricks. Now, right now, our national news media know to look at Florida for possible dirty tricks. They know to look at Ohio or certain swing states. But with a national popular vote, dirty tricks could happen in any of the 50 states, including ones that don't get much media attention. You know, there could be a dirty trick that pushes a vote higher in the direction we already expect. For example, Mississippi, six electoral votes could go more Republican than we expect through the action of dirty tricks or voter suppression. And in a national popular vote, those excess voters that were not real votes for a Republican in Mississippi would have just as much impact as a true swing in a true swing state.

Laura Knoy:
So, Dave, any changes that you would like to see in the Electoral College or do you pretty much think because of the concerns you raise, we should stick with it the way it is?

Caller:
No, I'm against winner-take-all, so I'm with Jesse on that, and I'm also against the Maine and Nebraska system because it tends to magnify the effects of gerrymandering, make them all the worse. So I would go for assigning in every state electoral votes, but proportional to the popular vote in that state, in the entire state, You contain the potential of recounts to within the boundaries of one state, which is status quo? And likewise, the dirty tricks are isolated state by state.

Laura Knoy:
Well, this is really interesting. And Dave, you're very well informed. Thank you for calling, Jesse. He talks about Maine and Nebraska that if we were to change the system, don't do it the way they do it. Can you just describe how they do it, Jesse, please?

Jesse Wegman:
Sure. So Dave's absolutely right that what Maine in Nebraska do is problematic because it adds in the factor of partisan gerrymandering. So Maine and Nebraska, rather than awarding all of their electors to the candidate who wins the most votes in the state, they give their electors based on congressional districts. Right. So every state has effectively has one elector for each congressional district. And all states have that right. They just choose not to recognize them in that way. Maine and Nebraska award one elector for each candidate. You know, whoever wins congressional district one gets that that districts elector. And same with two. And in Nebraska, it's three and four. And then whoever wins the most votes in the state gets the two Senate-based electoral votes.

Jesse Wegman:
So that opens up the possibility that you could have a split vote in the state, which which in theory really is a nice thing. Right. It represents that, it lets the states show the political diversity, that it has a little more than winner-take-all, which doesn't let you show it at all. So and in reality, you know, Donald Trump won one of Maine's electoral votes in 2016 because he won the second congressional district in Maine. Barack Obama in 2008 won one in Nebraska. You know, these are these are states that overall vote for the other candidate. So that's a good thing. But as Dave rightly points out, partisan gerrymandering is something that allows state lawmakers to draw the lines of their districts. Right. These are not sort of neutrally drawn lines, their lines drawn by people who want partisan benefit, who want to basically exploit the system to keep themselves and their parties in power, regardless of how people vote. So they draw lines in really distorted ways that kind of keep people from being accurately represented. Right now, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, those line drawings don't affect our presidential election at all. Right. If you had all states, if all states awarded their electors based on the district, you know, congressional districting, then it would all those crazy partisan gerrymanders that we've seen in recent years in places like Wisconsin and North Carolina, Michigan and Ohio would suddenly be transported into the election for the presidency.

Laura Knoy:
You know, Professor Greer, I'm curious about the the calculation that 48 out of 50 states have made to do this winner-take-all system. If states got rid of this and decided to do their electors according to vote percentages, you know, what sort of factors do they have to take into account as to whether that would benefit them or not?

Christina Greer:
Well, I think that that's the main question. And we know that, you know, the primary goal of all elected officials is to get reelected. So I think a lot of them would think strategically about would that help them in the long run. We also know that so many politicians think about the next office that they're holding. So would would this math actually help them? But it's interesting that Dave brings up the logistics of how this would happen, obviously in California and New York and Texas would be a complicated enterprise. I mean, I tend to to lean on my grandmother with these things where she says that we can put a man on the moon. I think we can figure this out. And I think that, you know, as we look also to technology, I don't think that we're there just yet because of external forces and corruption.

Christina Greer:
But, you know, as we do evolve in our technological advances, we might be able to think about the system that Dave suggested because we would have a more online voting system in a way to keep track of votes. There are lots of organizations that are trying to figure that out on a small scale before they they approach the larger scale, you know, making people have accessible ballots on, say, their smartphones or whatever that may be.

Laura Knoy:
Well, what's great about today's show is that people are weighing in Electoral College, keep it, chuck it, but they're also weighing in on changes they would like to see to the system. And that's great. Bruce in Webster emailed, I feel very strongly that the popular vote should prevail. Bruce says it's not good for our country to elect a president who doesn't have the support of the majority of the people because there is constant conflict. Our country prospers Bruce says when the majority of people support their president, he also says there should be one person, one vote, all equal. There is no real justification for the votes of voters in smaller states to have more weight than the votes of voters in more populous states. He says it is well past time for the Electoral College to go. So, Bruce, thank you for writing. Here's an idea from Patrick on Facebook. The Electoral College should not be abolished, however, they should allow the House of Representatives to grow to allow for even distribution of electoral votes by population versus the way it is now. Wow. Patrick, thank you for writing. And, Jesse, can you clarify there?

Jesse Wegman:
Well, that's a great that's that's one of my pet topics. In addition to the Electoral College, you know, if I write another book, it might be on this topic. So just a very quick history of this. Throughout American history, the House of Representatives, the size of the House was growing in relation to the population. Every 10 years there would be a census and then Congress would add seats, you know, because the size of the country had grown, the population had grown, and those seats would get distributed roughly where people lived. In 1911, they expanded it to 435 members, which is what it is today, and then they shut it down. Rural lawmakers around the country were terrified to watch as the country was becoming more urban. I believe it was in that decade, the 1910s, when more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas. And so they understood that the power, the power centers were moving away from them and they didn't want to give that up. So they essentially froze the size of the house in amber. And that is where it has been for more than 100 years now, even as the country has grown in population three times, meaning it is triple the size that it was in 1911. We still have a House of Representatives sized for 1910.

Jesse Wegman:
So I think that is a wonderful idea. I think it does not require any tinkering with the Constitution. All it requires is Congress to pass a law changing the size of the House of Representatives. And in fact, you know, there are lots of good proposals out there for how much bigger to make it. James Madison, you know, the father of the Constitution, actually would have had an amendment in the Constitution if he had gotten his way. The First Amendment to the Constitution would have been an amendment that tied forever. The size of the House to the size of the population in the house would now be about 11000 members, which I think we all can agree is probably too big. But, you know, You and New Hampshire have a larger I believe you have a larger house than we do in the in the nation. So it's just it's clearly not big enough because it does not it does not accurately reflect where people live and therefore, especially larger states lose out and should probably have many more electors. And they do that in turn, if you kept the Electoral College, could actually flip the results of presidential elections. So I'm a big advocate of expanding the House to be more proportionally representative of the people, which was its initial intent.

Laura Knoy:
That's really interesting. And Patrice in Canterbury has a similar thought. Patrice's says, Why can't we double the number of members of the House of Representatives? It wouldn't mean that each states would get twice as many. New Hampshire might end up with three. That would diminish the Senate discrepancy and it wouldn't require a change to the Constitution. David, also posted on Facebook, David says, By the Constitution, states control how their Electoral College votes get allocated. I'd be happy to see New Hampshire adopt the by district allocation, but doing that for the whole country would require a constitutional amendment. But David also says, I oppose getting rid of the Electoral College because it provides for more broad-based approach to the presidential election compared to just the popular vote.

Laura Knoy:
And Professor Greer, it's that last point that I wanted to ask you about. You know, Jesse has written and I'm going to ask you in a moment, Jesse, about the problem with presidential candidates focusing on swing states so much. But some analysts say this is not a bad thing. It forces candidates to appeal to the middle of the American electorate. Here's what one conservative analyst at the Heritage Foundation said. Quote, A careful study of history reveals the Electoral College is neither pro Democrat nor pro-Republican. It simply rewards the candidate who appears to be listening to the greatest cross-section of people at any given time. Professor Greer, what do you think? How do you sort this out?

Christina Greer:
I do hear that argument in the sense that, you know, there are always questions as to why do candidates have to start in Iowa and then New Hampshire and in states that oftentimes aren't very racially, ethnically, religiously diverse. But I think it does plant certain seeds of making sure presidential candidates don't just focus on 11 states and actually do have substantive campaign policies for a broad 50 state strategy. And that was really put into place by Jesse Jackson in 1984 and solidified in 1988, where he actually went to all 50 states to to try and campaign and think about their specific issues.

Christina Greer:
Interestingly enough, though, I want to quickly just back up on something Jesse said. I mean, this idea of expanding the numbers of members of the House and so we could have a much more equal distribution for the Electoral College is quite fascinating. I'm not saying it's off the table. We also have to remember the transaction costs. So if we increase the number of members of the House from 435 to something larger than that, we have to recognize that the potential for gridlock and deadlock increases substantively with all of those individual people and their new diverse interests from the respective districts. And so that would also make it a lot more nuanced for presidential candidates as they campaign, not saying that that would be a bad thing because they'd have to sort of curtail their messaging more specifically to what Americans want and need and not just broad strokes, but as I encourage my students to do, I mean, if you have the opportunity, obviously it's pre-Covid, to drive across the United States, not just to see the beauty of the nation, because it actually is one of the most beautiful places out there. But to see the extreme diversity within this nation and to think about how one person is trying to unify all of these different rural, suburban, hyper-urban individuals based on a myriad of demographics into one cohesive message under one umbrella of a party,

Laura Knoy:
That's incredibly difficult. And you're right, the country is enormous and diverse in many ways, not just racial diversity, but diversity of thought and lifestyle and so forth. Just quickly, Professor Greer, while we're talking about diversity, I have read that the Electoral College is related to our country's past with slavery. Now, I did not realize that. So can you clarify, please?

Christina Greer:
Yeah. I mean, lots of people called to abolish the Electoral College because they say, you know, it's rooted in slavery, racism. Every single policy in this United States is rooted in slavery and racism, every single last one. So, I mean, if we're going to get rid of the Electoral College, we can we can start with every single policy that the framers intended, because that was the the law of the land at the time. But, you know, for them to protect themselves, for the Southern legislators and founding fathers, to protect themselves, we have these draconian and sometimes completely obscure rules because Southern plantation owners who also were part of the framing body, wanted to make sure that they got maximum representation and the northern northerners were trying to compromise and negotiate with them. So this is also why we had the three-fifths rule, right. African-Americans at the time, sort of people who were under U.S. chattel slavery, they were enslaved by white Americans, were counted as three fifths of an individual. That was based on a compromise between the northerners and the southerners to make sure southerners wanted those bodies to count. The northerners said, well, they're not real people. You don't treat them as people. They don't really vote. So why should you get the representation of them as as individuals? Right. We still see this debate going on when communities are trying to count prisoners in their particular and other parts of the state say, well, that's not fair because they're not using the resources within the community. So based on that compromise, we get this proportional system. This is why if you all read the Constitution, the Constitution doesn't have a lot of information in there. But one of the key elements of the Constitution does have the census in there. And it says that we will take stock of our population every 10 years. And based on that, it is literally a head count. It was not to be politicized. It was just to say how many people are here. And we know that we've had racial subjugation in our country for centuries.

Christina Greer:
And so based on this creation of the Electoral College, it was really thinking about how do we count these individuals in particular parts of the country and usually southern states, such that representation is equitable for northerners and southerners. And every single policy we have is based on race, racism and compromise.

Laura Knoy:
I can really see them tearing their hair out over that one. The Southerners wanted, Professor Greer in a way, for enslaved people to count because it gave them more electors. But northerners were saying, well, hang on, you don't treat them like full-fledged citizens. So why should they be counted like citizens. All right, Jesse, I know you have some thoughts about swing states, and why you find them problematic. We will talk about that after a very short break and we'll keep hearing from you.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange. I'm Laura Knoy. This hour we're asking the Electoral College how it works technically and politically and whether we should keep it, change it or get rid of it. So, Professor Greer, Jesse Wegman, as we said, small states like New Hampshire often favor the Electoral College. We talked about this in one of our debates this fall for the 1st Congressional District. I want to play a little bit from that debate now so we can get some New Hampshire politicians weighing in on this. We're going to hear first from the Republican candidate, Matt Mowers, defending the Electoral College.

audio clip:
The Electoral College protects New Hampshire's role in the electoral system. Our founders set it up because they saw in England that in colonial England that, you know, folks who are living in further away from metro areas, in urban centers, that the will of their voice was ignored because politicians just focused on the will of the voters in the places with more where more votes were cast. So actually, I support the Electoral College. I support protecting it because it ensures that New Hampshire's voice is heard in the electoral system.

Laura Knoy:
Ok, so that's Matt Mowers, he's the Republican nominee for the 1st Congressional District, and Jesse, is that why the founders set up the Electoral College to make sure that, you know, rural and small state voters weren't overrun by the big states?

Jesse Wegman:
No, this is this is one of the oldest and most persistent misconceptions of what was being created by the founders and how it actually functions today. It's you know, it's frustrating because, you know, I mean, this is just flat out revisionist history that the candidate there is saying the framers were worried about the metro areas and the urban centers. There were no metro areas. There were no urban centers in the United you know, in the colonial era, you know, the biggest city had maybe twenty or thirty thousand people in it. Yes, there were small states. Yes, there were big states. And yes, there were debates over how to allocate power among different-sized states. Those arguments were very intense at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and they were largely resolved through the creation of the Senate, which gave all states equal power regardless of their size. But the reason, New Hampshire, you know, here's one thing where I'll agree with the candidate. I'm sorry, I'm not Mowers, I think. Yeah, he is right that New Hampshire has outsized power in the Electoral College right now. New Hampshire doesn't have outsized power because it's a small state. New Hampshire has outsized power because it is a battleground state. In fact, New Hampshire is the only small state in the country that is a battleground state. Let's say we're going to let's let's define small states by states with three or four electoral votes.

Jesse Wegman:
There are 13 of those states, 12 of them are safe states. That's our really unfortunate term. I think four states where, you know, no matter how many people vote, it doesn't matter because they're going to go one way or the other. And in fact, six of them reliably go for the Democrats, six reliably go for the Republican. That's another understanding a lot of people have. People think of small states and they conflate them with Republican states. In fact, they split evenly. The only small state that is not a safe state is New Hampshire and New Hampshire, just to be clear, New Hampshire gets more attention from the presidential candidates of both parties and probably from the president himself then all of those other 12 states combined. And that's because it is a battleground state where it matters how much campaigning you do. It matters what you say to the voters because it's very close in the end. That's what I think is I think people need to understand, is that these battleground states are the states that have the most power in the election. It is not small states, it is not big states. It's battleground states, particularly larger battleground states like Florida, like Pennsylvania. And that's the major distortion under the Electoral College as it operates today.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and let's get into some of the politics of this, we heard Matt Mowers, a Republican, saying what other Republican candidates here in New Hampshire have said, let's keep the electoral college, make sure that small states aren't run over by large states. That's their argument, not mine. And let's hear from the Democrat in that race, the first congressional district. This is Democratic Congressman Chris Pappas. We also asked him about the Electoral College. He had an opposite view from Mr. Mowers. Let's hear.

audio clip:
I believe in one person, one vote. I think that's something we should take a look at. I've been considering that and having conversations with people about the Electoral College, which is really an antiquated compromise that came out of our constitutional convention when this nation was founded. But I think that it doesn't really get at what the will of the people is saying and communicating in an election. And I have great concern that we've had two presidents recently that have been elected without having a majority of the popular vote nationally. So I think we've got to be looking at how we can shore up our democracy to make sure that every vote counts.

Laura Knoy:
Again, that's Democratic Congressman Chris Pappas talking on our debate about the Electoral College, and Karen in Laconia writes something similar to what we're talking about now. When the popular vote doesn't determine the winner, people feel as if their vote doesn't count. One proposed solution, Karen says, is to provide for an override of the Electoral College. If a candidate wins the popular vote by a big enough margin, which would be determined ahead of time. Karen says this sounds reasonable and simpler than trying to eliminate the Electoral College. Professor Greer. Can you comment either on Karen's point or just more broadly, the assumptions that are made about the politics the Electoral College plays?

Christina Greer:
Right. And I mean, you know, I have the honor and privilege of teaching young people, and so many of them are just saying, why do we have this system? Let's just get rid of it. I, surprisingly, I'm not one of the folks -- I hope I don't bump into Jesse on the streets of New York. But I'm not one of those folks who's who's ready to get rid of the Electoral College just yet. And I know that we've had two instances in recent memory, 2000 in 2016, where the popular vote, the candidate who received the popular vote, in both cases, the Democrat, did not receive the number, the higher number of Electoral College votes, and therefore the Republican candidate won. The reason why I'm not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet is because I view 2016 as a cut and dried case. Yes, popular vote did not match Electoral College vote. I do think the will of the people there, 60 some odd million people who felt like this, this integrated system does not work if we see that again in 2020 and 2024. Absolutely. We need to think about restructuring. But for 2000, I actually don't really see that as the system failing because and I don't think that we've discussed this as a nation. But keep in mind, in 2000, this came down to the state of Florida where one of the candidates, brothers, just happened to be the governor. He happened to be in charge of of, you know, putting in a secretary of state.

Christina Greer:
And they decided through a Supreme Court, with justices that were placed on the bench by their father, to decide whether the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case went in favor of George Bush or Al Gore. And if you remember, in Bush v. Gore, there's Supreme Court cases, there's a vote and there's an opinion. And the vote was five-four in favor of George Bush. But if you read the opinions those justices said, and don't ever follow this as precedent. And so I view 2000 as an extreme case of corruption and theft, and I don't really see, and it's highly problematic. And I thought it weakened our democracy and unfortunately played out sixteen years later. But I don't necessarily see that instance as a failure of the Electoral College system. I saw that as a breakdown of three branches of government, quite honestly, and not just the Electoral College. So I think 2016 is a very clean case. 2000 for me is a much more muddled case. Now, if Al Gore had won in his home state of Tennessee, we wouldn't have this conversation. So that's another piece for those of you who are thinking about running for the presidency, win your home state, maybe you won't have issues. But 2000 for me is is an asterisk. It didn't work with an asterisk. 2016 is a clean case of the popular vote, not matching the Electoral College vote and millions of Americans feeling as though the system was completely broken.

Laura Knoy:
Well, that's interesting, though, Professor Greer. So even with some of the problems that you've raised, including, you know, how this thing came to be based on slave owners kind of wanting their slaves to count, but, you know, not really. You still think that let's not get rid of this thing quite yet? Why is that, Professor Greer?

Christina Greer:
Because for, I usually just go from recent memory, let's just say from, you know, Eisenhower to the present. That's how I sort of think about structures just because of technology and whatnot and movement of people and incorporation of folks into the actual electoral process. And keep in mind, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which we no longer fully have protection of. But that's really what helped black people vote in this country. So black Americans haven't really been fully franchised for more than, say, 50, 60 years. I'm just not, I'm more of an institutionalist. And the system has worked in the past. And we've figured out sort of demographic movement across the country. If in this particular election tomorrow we see again the failure, then I think it's a substantive question. But for me, 2016, it failed. That isn't enough for me to throw out the entire system.

Laura Knoy:
Interesting, I'd love to share a couple more comments from our listeners, again, lots of people writing in with their thoughts, whether they want to keep the Electoral College, let it go, and also lots of ideas today to fix the system, if not completely throw it out. Scott on Facebook says: The Electoral College began as a racist idea, which continues today. There are more people of color in L.A. County than white people in the Midwest. Morris emails: I really hate the Electoral College. I completely blame Donald Trump getting into office versus Hillary Clinton entirely on the onus of the Electoral College. As a historian and looking at the Constitution, the Electoral College is the most misguided and incorrect use of the ideal of an electoral system. And then Edward writes: Why should mainly rural states agree to any changes in the Electoral College? What's in it for them? Jesse Wegman, you have argued in your book we should get rid of this system. How would you answer Edward's question?

Jesse Wegman:
Well, what's in it for them is getting any attention at all to their concerns, you know, because right now, as the Electoral College functions under the winner-take-all rule, rural states, small states, most states don't get any attention from either party's candidate. That's just the way it works because of winner-take-all. The only states that matter are these battleground states. And they aren't, with the exception, as I said, of New Hampshire, they are not small states. They are bigger states. And they are there's nothing special about these states. To go back to something that I think came up a bit earlier. I don't see how the battleground states, whichever ones they happen to be in a given year, are in any way representative of a cross-section of the country. They're just, they're arbitrary states that happen to have an extremely narrow margin between the Republicans and the Democrats in that state. And I don't see that as somehow more representative. In fact, as we saw in 2016, they're actually less representative. Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania are whiter, older and more conservative than the rest of the country.

Jesse Wegman:
I think the bottom line of this, and this is what I this is the point I really want to make, is people don't vote based on the state that they live in. This whole idea that states have a voice, that they're either Republican or Democratic is just completely the opposite of reality. People vote for candidates based on the party they support. Right. So California, we call it blue. Right. Even though four and a half million Republicans voted for Donald Trump in 2016 in California, four and a half million people, that's more than the population of most U.S. states. And yet they were all basically invisible when it came time for California to cast its electoral votes. Same thing happens to Democrats in Texas or South Carolina. Same thing happens to Republicans in New York and New Jersey. So, you know, that to me is really the ultimate insult because people everywhere should count equally in choosing the leader of the country whose job it is to represent all Americans equally no matter where they live. You can vote for your senator.

Jesse Wegman:
You can vote for your members of the House. You can vote for your governor and your state lawmakers. You do that as a member of your state, right. That you have plenty of opportunities to protect our system of federalism and to protect multilayered government, by those votes. The presidency is the only office in the country whose job it is to represent all Americans equally, no matter where they live. And that's why the president should be chosen in that manner.

Laura Knoy:
Well, what about, then, Jesse, just keeping the Electoral College, but doing it proportionally? So, again, in the example we used earlier, you and I are competing in Texas. I get 49, you get 51 percent. And then having Texas electors allocated on that percentage, would that fix the problem, Jesse, so that, you know, Democratic votes in Texas wouldn't be, quote unquote, wasted Republican votes in Massachusetts wouldn't be quote unquote, wasted?

Jesse Wegman:
It sounds better, doesn't it? On the surface, it looks like a very reasonable way to resolve the problem. Here are some problems with it. In a place like Texas or California, you're right. You could probably pretty accurately map the states vote no matter how it came out with the electors, because you just have so many electors to work with. In a place like New Hampshire doesn't work. Right, because when you have so few electoral votes, it's very hard to necessarily capture all potential popular vote outcomes. And then you have the like. Just to give you an example, what if like a state with three electoral votes, Wyoming, was 51-49? Well, you can't represent that with the only options you have, which would be two to one or three to zero. Right. That you replicate, that you know, that distortion all over the country and then you end up with the same problems that you have today. You end up with the same risk that you would elect the popular vote loser in the country as president. The other point, I think was brought up by one of the listeners a little while back, which is that the only way that works, as you're describing it, is if all states adopt it and there's no way all states will adopt it, they would have to be forced to do so by a constitutional amendment. And then we're back in the land of constitutional amendments, which I think are not are not the easiest way to make reforms to our system of government.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. OK, let's take another call. This is Earl in Concord. Hi, Earl. Thanks for calling in today.

Caller:
Good morning. Good morning. It's great conversation. It dawned on me during the speaker's comments that if the Electoral College stays intact in Puerto Rico, in Washington, D.C., are added as new states with the number of Electoral College members be increased and so do know by how many?

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Great question, Earl. Jesse, do you know?

Jesse Wegman:
Yes. I mean, if assuming that both of those were admitted as single states, it would be, the Senate would grow by four. So you'd have 104 members of the Senate and the Electoral College would also grow by four. So there would be then 542 electoral votes.

Laura Knoy:
Ok, Earl, thanks a lot for calling in. And we have so many more questions from our listeners that we will tackle after a short break. This is The Exchange on NPR.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange I'm Laura Knoy. Today, the Electoral College, why we have it, how it works and why lots of people want to chuck it or change it. Helping us out this hour, our Fordham University political science associate professor Christina Greer and Jesse Wegman of The New York Times editorial board and author of a book about the Electoral College. And both of you, I want to turn again to this idea of swing states, battleground states, because Joanne in Rye emails, what is a battleground state mean? I just looked it up and the definition didn't explain it. And Joanne, thank you for writing, because, Professor Greer, we sort of throw this term around, you know, but what does that really mean?

Christina Greer:
Yeah, I mean, I think it's really important, especially because we talk about these terms so casually, many people don't know. Well, I would I would implore your listeners to go to 270toWin.com. And that's a really great map of the Electoral College map. You can even play with it. And so, you know, you can see whether or not it's a weak-leaning state or a strong Democratic state or strong Republican state. So you can actually play with the numbers to get to 270. But there's certain states where they are solidly, as Jesse's explained, red or blue, and they have been consistently for several elections. Battleground states are those that are kind of tossups. You know, sometimes we call them swing states as well. And so a place like Florida or Pennsylvania or North Carolina, we've seen Ohio, be states where presidential candidates tend to go there and fight for the policy issues of those particular people in that state. So Pennsylvania is a prime example. Many of my students were scratching their heads because they didn't understand in the vice presidential debate why ten minutes was dedicated to fracking. They didn't understand why that was all of a sudden a great policy issue when we've got 230,000 Americans dead from Covid, rampant unemployment, etc, etc. And so that's a state where because they're 20 electors, it's incredibly important for candidates to make their case to the citizens of Pennsylvania. And they're battling over whether or not that state will go blue or red.

Laura Knoy:
I'm so glad you raised that example, Professor Greer, because, Jesse, you have written about this with some frustration about the attention that about a dozen so-called battleground states get from candidates and that the issues, as Professor Greer notes, that come to the fore, that get a lot of airtime may not be that interesting for the rest of the country. For example, Jesse,you said Obama bailed out the auto industry because he was looking for those Midwestern votes. So other examples can you give us of the outsized influence of these battleground states?

Jesse Wegman:
Sure. I mean, just to clarify that, that was one of the reasons that I think Obama bailed out. The auto industry exists in Michigan and Pennsylvania. It wasn't the only one. But it's certainly an important factor to consider.

Jesse Wegman:
And this is really the point, I can't emphasize it enough. This is just an artifact of winner take-all-laws. Battleground states are no more or less important, no more or less representative than any other state in the country. They just happen for demographic and political, perhaps fleeting reasons, to have a roughly equal number of voters on both sides. That's important. And that's why we call them battleground states, because candidates know that a little bit of campaigning, a little bit of focus, a little bit of, you know, more TV ads, more emphasis on the issues that concern voters in parts of that state, like fracking, for example, or like the auto industry's survival in the Midwest, can actually move the entire bucket of electoral votes in that state from one camp to the other. That was why, you know, look at Florida in 2000. It's just the you know, the prime example of this, right? Because that state in that year, I think more than six million people in Florida voted. And the difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore was 537 popular votes. That is essentially a tie, right? It probably wasn't even that number, but the Supreme Court cut off counting at that point. It was it was so close to be essentially immeasurable, the difference between those two. But because of winner-take-all, all 25 of Florida's electors went to George W. Bush, zero went to Al Gore. And what that incentivizes in candidates of both parties and in the president is this outsized attention to just a few states and even just a few regions in a few states to win the entire country.

Jesse Wegman:
I write in my book, you know, I interviewed campaign managers and field directors from both Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns over the last 25 years. And I said, you know, what would you do differently to win in a popular vote election? And they were very clear that it drove them crazy to have to try to win an election for the whole country and craft a message for their candidate based on the interests of a few voters in Ohio or Florida or Pennsylvania. You know, you asked for examples. You know, George W. Bush passing the prescription drug benefit right back, you know, Medicare Part D back in the early 2000s. I mean, sure, it's great. I want elderly people to have easier access, especially those with without means to have easier access to the medicines they need to save their lives. But it's it's no secret that there's a lot of elderly people in Florida, and it's no secret that Republicans generally don't like big government entitlement programs. So why would they get behind this? Because Republicans need to win Florida to win the White House. So you see that distortion of policy-making and policy platforms from both parties. And it's really just that it is the effect of that winner-take-all law. You get rid of that law or you change it in other ways, which I think we can talk a. There's one big reform we haven't touched on yet, and I think you get rid of that problem.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Heather in Pittsfield writes, Is it true that there is no law that the state has to honor what the population picks and that the electors could choose who they wanted and ignore the voters choice? Heather, thank you for writing. Both of you, we've actually gotten several comments from listeners about so-called faithless electors. So let's just roll back for a second. And Professor Greer, please, who are these electors? New Hampshire has four. So who are these people? And what is a faithless elector, as our emailer asks?

Christina Greer:
Right. I mean, Jesse's obviously the expert on this. But, you know, the the electors are chosen by the party before the general election and they are sworn to go oftentimes to the state house. And this is where American democracy is hilarious sometimes, the Monday after the second Wednesday in December of the presidential election year. So in this case, this year, it's December 14th, those sworn electors are to go. And let's just say Joe Biden wins New Hampshire, those electors will go and the Democratic electors will pledge their support for Joe Biden en masse. Now, Jesse can get to the nuance of those, the concern that some of those actors will not act in good faith.

Laura Knoy:
Wow, and Jesse, from what I understand, thirty three states say you can't do that, New Hampshire is not one of them. So this is starting to sound, as Professor Greer said, kind of crazy.

Jesse Wegman:
So if you'll permit me, I'm going to actually dispense with the concern about faithless electors. I don't think it's a real concern.

Laura Knoy:
OK, good, because a lot of listeners want to know about it.

Jesse Wegman:
Actually, I think what your what the caller or the listener was asking about was a slightly different issue. And so I want to address that issue, which is a great question. And let me distinguish it from the point about faithless electors, faithless electors, as as Professor Greer really nicely put it, faithless electors are people who, you know, electors are expected to vote for the candidate they were pledged to.

Jesse Wegman:
There is not a single body of electors in each state. Candidates bring their own slate of electors. They have chosen those electors, as Professor Greer said. Those are their party people, right? These are these are people who are chosen because they support the Democratic candidate or because they support the Republican candidate. That is why faithless electors really don't matter, because the vast, vast majority of electors want to vote for their candidate. And if their candidate wins the most votes in a state, they're sent to the state capital in December to cast their ballot. They have no incentive to vote for anyone else. They want to vote for Donald Trump or they want to vote for Joe Biden. So faithless electors have never made a difference in the outcome of any election in history, and they never will. And so that's why I think the concern over them is a little misplaced. What I think the caller was getting to was a separate question, which is the power of state legislatures to award electors themselves with no reference to how the people in their state voted or even letting the people vote at all for president. That is absolutely correct. The Constitution leaves it entirely in the hands of the state legislature. You know, states could just, lawmakers could just give the electors out themselves. They don't have to involve you and me and all other 100, 300, whatever million Americans in the choice of president.

Jesse Wegman:
They can do it themselves with no with no regard for what we want. And in fact, in the early years of the republic, many states did exactly that. No state has done that since 1876. And no state, I think, you know, absent extraordinary circumstances, would do it today because we have an expectation as a modern democracy that the people themselves get to vote. And I think that's kind of the irony of all this. Right, which is we have a national popular vote for president right now. Americans in every state vote for the president. What keeps us from measuring the vote as a national popular vote are those state winner-take-all laws which artificially erase tens of millions of voters in all states. So I think it's good that the caller brought that up because it's an important point that states could right now, not right now, not today. It's too late. But states can pass a law whenever they want before an election that says, you know what, voters we're not including you. We're going to give out electors ourselves. They don't do that because they know that people would revolt. So the idea that people couldn't be involved in choosing their president is not acceptable to the Americans today. So I just think that's that's a really good point. And I'm glad that the caller brought it up.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, I'm really glad you clarified that, too, because it's a concern people do have. So two more questions from listeners that I'd love to get to before we close out. Really thoughtful comments from people today. Meg in Nashua says, I get the argument to change, but a huge marker of the strength of democracy is protection of the minority vote. The Electoral College does act as one check on the majority making all the decisions for the country. Meg says if we eliminate the Electoral College than in many senses, the urban populous liberal voice will be the only one that counts. Populations like farmers in the Midwest, the backbone of the American economy, Meg says, and many others may be underrepresented. It seems intrinsically unfair. Despite that, it's certainly appealing, Meg says. As a lifelong Democrat, what do you think, Professor Greer?

Christina Greer:
I think that that's, you know, obviously a great concern, but, you know, as the framers really struggled with this, I mean, if we read Federalist Papers No. 10 they really wanted to make sure that the majority was protected from a small minority and they wanted to make sure the minority was protected from a vast majority, I mean, this has been a quandary for our large democracy since the very beginning. I think the flip side of Meg's argument is, you know, do rural farmers in miscellaneous places have an outsized amount of power compared to people who are in urban centers?

Christina Greer:
And so how we figure out a system, especially based on movement and people getting pushed out of cities and into suburban areas now. How do we adequately represent rural, suburban and urban communities? Because right now it's completely lopsided and many people in cities don't feel as though they're getting the best representation in the Electoral College. And people in Iowa and New Hampshire are getting more representation than they they possibly should. So, that would be my response to sort of recognize that changing the system, yes, could possibly hurt rural folks. But as of right now, I do think that the system disproportionately ignores the power of people in major cities.

Laura Knoy:
So urban folks right now, their voices are being drowned out because these are the ways that the electors are assigned and so forth, as we talked about earlier when we kind of went through the math on that. Jesse, last question and I have to ask you to make it quick, but I love this question. It's kind of a setup for your next book that you said you might write, Jesse. Amy writes, If smaller states electoral representation is greater than that of larger states, is it, Amy asks, a form of taxation without representation for the larger states. Go ahead, Jesse.

Jesse Wegman:
I mean, that term is very specifically used, and I wouldn't that's not the description I would use. No, but just very quickly on this other point, it's not statistically true that urban areas would dominate an election. In fact, the country is divided almost exactly evenly in quarters between rural areas, small towns, suburbs and big cities. So actually, everyone would have a roughly equal voice in choosing the president. But nevertheless, the bottom line is majority rule is the way that we run every election in the country. It's the way the founders actually thought it should happen. They said the will of the majority is the essence of Republican government. So I think that's really where people misunderstand it. We're not running the country by direct democracy when we elect the president by a popular vote. We are choosing the representative who represents all of us equally. And that's the bottom line.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and I want to let listeners know that we have, you know, articles and also great videos that both of you produced on our web post for today's show. Professor Greer, thank you for giving us your time. That's Professor Greer. She's a Fordham University associate, political science professor and Jesse Wegman, he sits in The New York Times editorial board and he's author of the book "Let the People Pick the President The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College." Today's show was produced by Jessica Hunt. This is The Exchange on NHPR.