Fixing the Electoral College is Now More Important Than Ever

The 2018 midterm election was indeed a big blue wave for Democrats: almost 40 House seats flipped, abundant governor and statehouse pickups, minimal Senate losses despite a historically unfavorable map, and progressive ballot initiative victories nationwide. The 2020 election now looks promising for increasing those gains and taking back the Senate.

But one area of concern still stands out above all others: the electoral college map. David Siders at Politico summarizes it aptly:

Democrats winding up to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020 have long approached the electoral map with two goals in mind: Reestablish the party’s dominance in the upper Midwest, and expand the competitive terrain to include several new, traditionally conservative states.

Tuesday served as a reminder of how difficult that will be.

Despite drawing closer to Republicans in marquee races in Georgia, Arizona and Texas — all hopeful signs — Democrats nevertheless ran into traditional ceilings in those states. They also failed to pick off Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds — despite near-optimal conditions of a freshman incumbent, massive turnout and tariffs weighing heavily on rural voters — and lost the Ohio gubernatorial race, winning just nine of 88 counties after Trump carried the state by 9 percentage points in 2016.

Surveying the landscape for Republicans and Democrats alike, Jon Seaton, a Washington-based strategist and former adviser to Sen. John McCain, said, “At the end of the day, for all the talk of realignment, we’re going to be talking about the same five, six, seven states.”

Forty of 50 states voted for the same party from 2000 to 2012. For anyone expecting 2020 to be different, he said, “2018, as I’m looking at it, is certainly a reality check.”

Democrats will, of course, continue to do major voter registration drives, especially in newly competitive western and southern states, and Republicans will once again try to maximize their margins among more prejudiced and racially conservative whites, particularly in the Rust Belt. But the fundamental dynamics are unlikely to change all that much. Perhaps Democrats can truly put Georgia’s 16 electoral college votes in play. Perhaps Republicans can still play for Wisconsin’s 10.

But for the most part, the entire presidential election will be determined by a handful of votes in either direction in only about a half-dozen states. Since most voters are now committed partisans and the undecided voters also tend to be the least informed, that means the fate of our democracy will essentially be decided by the lowest information voters in just five or six states.

That is wrong. It’s not what the founders intended for the electoral college, which was supposed to be a safety valve against a populist despot (and failed dramatically to serve its purpose in 2016). Yet, even if you argue this situation is by design, then the design is bad and needs to be scrapped.

Fixing the electoral college would also serve to encourage bipartisanship. Presidential candidates should be fighting for votes everywhere, and our politics should not be warped to give the most attention and the biggest unspoken bribes to a few states where partisanship happens to be the most evenly divided in an effort to maximize contrasts. Democratic candidates should be forced to hunt for votes in rural states, and Republican candidates should be incentivized to try to win over as many votes as possible in big blue states. Since most House districts and even Senate seats are hopelessly non-competitive, the presidency should force politicians to try to promote policies that a real majority of Americans can support. Forcing Republican candidates to try to win votes in Los Angeles and New York would help pull the party back from its racist death spiral. Democrats would therefore be encouraged to become more creative in providing real economic solutions beyond tired re-training and tax credit programs to devastated white working-class communities across the country.

The method is simple, as Steve Silberstein wrote here in depth last year: the National Popular Vote Compact. With a number of states now in Democratic hands, it has never been more urgent or necessary for states to sign on to the National Popular Vote compact to give all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. Connecticut was the most recent state to join, bringing the tally of cumulative electoral votes in the agreement to 172. Now only 98 more are needed to make presidential elections the truly national contests they deserve to become.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.