As expected, the Electoral College has failed the Republic. (See “The Constitution Faces a Challenge (And It Will Probably Fail).”) Although the result still lacks final certification—truly a formality at this point—Donald J. Trump’s election to be President of the United States today became certain with the Electoral College vote.
Although the Electoral College has its defenders, most Americans neither completely understand our electoral system nor approve of what they do understand. Many thoughtful commentators have argued that the Constitution should be changed to mandate that the candidate receiving the most votes becomes President. (E.J. Dione Jr. was arguing this on The Diane Rehm Show only today.) Many advocates for scrapping the current system seem to believe that doing so by means of a constitutional amendment—a route that has been tried unsuccessfully in the past—will not succeed. Simple inertia militates against the change. Also, it is argued that small states would oppose it.
Actually, I suspect that the Republican Party would object to a constitutional amendment. It isn’t clear that the current system actually favors the Republican candidate, but it is true that the two elections in recent years in which the winner did not have the most votes were won by Republicans (2000 and 2016).
The small state argument for the current system is weak. Although it is true, for example, that one vote in Wyoming has, in some sense, more influence than one vote in California, Wyoming has so few electoral votes and, in any case, is a reliably red state, so no candidates bother to campaign there.
Admittedly, passing a constitution amendment to elect the President and Vice President by popular vote may seem an impossible task in December 2016. However, a lot of people are upset about how Trump won the presidency, so that there is probably more sentiment for such an amendment than there has ever been. If people interested in democracy continue to agitate for change, that change might eventually be effected. Think about same-sex marriage. Not too many years ago, legalizing same-sex marriage was unthinkable. Even LGBT activists were reluctant to advocate it. Over time, however, attitudes changed. This could happen with how we elect our chief leaders. But it can only happen if the issue is kept before the public.
A constitutional amendment is the proper answer to the question of how we can improve our electoral system. Passing state laws to make electors vote for the candidate with the most votes is an unreliable kludge that might easily be declared unconstitutional.
I must offer one caveat. While it’s true that Hillary Clinton received more individual votes than did Donald Trump, she did not earn a majority of the votes cast. According to the AP, Clinton received 48% of the votes, and Trump received 47%. Gary Johnson, however, earned 3.3% of the votes, and Jill Stein earned 1%. If either Clinton or Trump were declared the winner, more votes would have been cast against that person than for her or him. This might seem like a minor technical point, but there are reasons to demand that the winner win with a majority of the votes cast. (See “The People’s Choice” for more insight into why this is important.) One of the “virtues” of our current system is that it usually (though not always) delivers a winner with a majority of the (electoral) votes cast.
There are at least two basic ways to elect by popular vote and elect by majority, not simply plurality. One way is to have a second vote of the top two candidates if no candidate achieves a majority of votes in the initial election. In certain circumstances—see “The People’s Choice” again—this can produce anomalous results. As long as we continue to have only two major parties, the only real problem is having to have a second nation-wide vote. Under our current system, however, we don’t really select a winner immediately. (I dismissed this scheme in my essay just referred to, but I may have been hasty.)
A second (and better) way to assure the winner wins by a majority it to use a preference voting system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. (See “The People’s Choice (Round Two).”) This would be the ideal sort of voting scheme to ensconce in the Constitution. It is, however, unfamiliar and difficult to describe, so people would need experience with it in other contexts before it would be widely accepted.
The will of the people, I assert, did not determine who will be our next President. We need to fix our electoral system lest our democracy be seen as illegitimate. (A Trump presidency will surely encourage Americans to consider alternatives to the present system.)
And so, fellow Americans, we need to argue for direct election of President and Vice President. We need to do it now, and we need to maintain pressure for change. Perfecting our Union demands it.