The final report of the House Jan. 6 committee included 11 recommendations to prevent a repeat of former President Donald Trump’s challenge to the peaceful transfer of power. Missing, though, is a potential 12th recommendation, one that would be a major lift even in a less partisan climate: abolishing the Electoral College.
That was the idea committee member Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., brought to the table. The decision of the committee to make only unanimous recommendations led Raskin to drop the suggestion, according to a behind-the-scenes look at the panel’s work from The New York Times Magazine. But he’s right. The Electoral College isn’t just a vestige of the past; it is a ticking time bomb for exploitation in our democratic system.
Raskin laid out his argument in an interview Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I think that the Electoral College now, which has given us five popular vote losers as president in our history, twice in this century alone, has become a danger not just to democracy, but to the American people,” Raskin told host Margaret Brennan. “It was a danger on January 6th. There are so many curving byways and nooks and crannies in the Electoral College that there are opportunities for a lot of strategic mischief.”
The Electoral College isn’t just a vestige of the past; it is a ticking time bomb for exploitation in our democratic system.
Yes, the recently passed omnibus spending bill includes amendments to the Electoral Count Act, an 1886 law that Trump’s allies tried to exploit to overturn the 2020 election. (Among those changes are language making it clear that the vice president’s role is ceremonial, meaning the vice president doesn’t have the power to toss out states’ electoral votes or “send it back to the states.”) But it still relies on the constitutional relic that is the Electoral College as an intermediary step in choosing the president and the vice president. Raskin argued that, instead, the U.S. “should elect the president the way we elect governors, senators, mayors, representatives, everybody else: Whoever gets the most votes wins.”
Those nooks and crannies Raskin mentioned become apparent when you look at the original arguments in favor of the Electoral College. The system that Alexander Hamilton laid out in Federalist 68 was truly independent, with a new set of wise men (because of course they were men) selected in each state every four years and tasked with choosing the best man (same) to become chief executive. Then, its work done, the college would dissolve, its members unable to be bribed or corrupted before the next election.
Hamilton argued that having the people vote for several electors equal to the number of federal representatives and senators combined was “much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes.” Breaking the vote down by state was also meant to create a “detached and divided situation” for electors that would “expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.” But Hamilton, in promoting this scheme, was ignorant of the coming rise of political parties, nationalization of politics and massive leaps in communication speed.
Today, voters may think they’re casting their votes directly for presidential candidates, but they’re really choosing members of the Electoral College, who are themselves selected by the two parties. Those electors now all meet on the same day to cast their votes across the country. Congress is divided between two political parties, one of which has shown it will back its candidate in any election dispute, including a clearly illegitimate claim of victory. And the Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that, rather than being free to vote their consciences, as Hamilton supposed, electors are instead bound by their states’ laws, which, in most cases, obligate them to vote for the candidate who got the most votes.
What remains, then, is a system filled with theoretical fail-safes that have now become liabilities
While preventing faithless electors from ignoring their states’ popular vote winners is good, it still represents what’s at best a workaround, one that still leaves the presidential race’s outcome undemocratically weighted against the national popular vote. What remains, then, is a system filled with theoretical fail-safes that have now become liabilities, like a corrupted computer firewall or an immunocompromised white blood cell. It’s long been clear that the Electoral College not only doesn’t function how the founders intended; it doesn’t even function in a way that upholds democracy. You’re forced to wonder why it’s worth keeping in the first place.
Several states have already signed on to a compact to cast their electoral votes for candidates who win the national popular vote, even if those candidates lose their states. As it stands, the states that have signed on constitute only 195 votes, less than a majority, which makes their decision unlikely to tip the scales. Even if it someday becomes likely, the odds that the compact is deemed an unconstitutional disenfranchisement of their states’ voters seem high.
The best safeguard, then, would be to amend the Constitution itself to abolish the Electoral College. It’s a high bar, but not impossible. In 1934, the Senate fell two votes short of the two-thirds majority required to send the proposal to the states. The idea of abolishing the Electoral College gained traction again in the 1960s. But what’s clear is that Raskin is right: The system as it stands is too convoluted to be useful, and it’s prone to trickery. It’s better to try to reach that high bar to get rid of the system than to simply wait for the Electoral College to bring us the next constitutional crisis or another president whom the majority of Americans didn’t choose.