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Momentum Builds To Eliminate The Electoral College

Mar 21, 2019
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The old saying holds: be careful what you wish for because you might get it. What if Democrats got their wish and altered the Electoral College? That system of state-by-state voting for president allowed Donald Trump to win the White House in 2016 while losing the national popular vote. NPR's Miles Parks explored Democratic efforts to change the rules.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: At a CNN town hall in Jackson, Miss., this week, one of Elizabeth Warren's biggest applause lines wasn't about regulating big business or universal health care.

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ELIZABETH WARREN: Every vote matters. And the way we can...

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WARREN: ...Make that happen is that we can have national voting. And that means get rid of the Electoral College.

(APPLAUSE, CHEERING)

PARKS: Other Democratic presidential candidates agree. Former Representative Beto O'Rourke said he thinks there's a, quote, "lot of wisdom in that." And Senator Kamala Harris says she's open to the idea. There's even a growing movement in states controlled by Democrats to bypass the Electoral College in favor of rewarding the candidate who wins the popular vote.

Even President Trump has weighed in. Seven years ago, he tweeted that the Electoral College is a, quote, "disaster for democracy." But since becoming president, his views have changed. On Tuesday, he wrote, quote, "I used to like the idea of the popular vote but now realize the Electoral College is far better for the USA."

PAUL GRONKE: President Trump is acting like many politicians. Something that they don't like when they're out of office - they get elected it; it helps them. And now suddenly they're a big fan of it.

PARKS: That's Paul Gronke. He's a professor of political science at Reed College in Oregon. He favors a national popular vote but admits there would be enormous logistical hurdles.

GRONKE: One of the real difficult challenges is, what would we do in the case of a national recount? How would that work? You look at the Florida situation that we had in 2000, and that already took a lot of time and effort. But imagine if that was done across the country. It's just not clear how you could do that.

PARKS: But the public is in favor of shaking up the system. About two-thirds of Americans believe presidential elections should be decided by the popular vote, with a third supporting the Electoral College. That's according to an Atlantic/PRRI (ph) poll taken last year. Gary Gregg is in that third. He leads the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville. Like President Trump, he feels a popular vote would tilt the political system too heavily towards urban areas like New York and Los Angeles and would radicalize politics.

GARY GREGG: The game will not be, any longer, to be a liberal but be able to appeal to a rural Ohioan. The game will be - be a liberal to the extent that I can maximize votes in major urban centers.

PARKS: But the point of elections is to reward whoever gets the most votes, says Jacob Levy. He's a professor of political theory at McGill University.

JACOB LEVY: The claim that it disproportionately advantages urban areas is either misleading or false. Precisely what it does is proportionately advantages where the people are. And places where there are more people become more important when you're counting votes.

PARKS: Levy says another downside of the Electoral College is that it also disproportionately devalues nonwhite voters, who are more likely to live in urban areas. To Levy, this is a question of democratic legitimacy.

LEVY: If we keep seeing episodes in which the electoral outcome and the popular outcome diverge, then that's going to put real strain on the faith of voters writ large in the system.

PARKS: But if Levy had to bet on whether the U.S. will still be using the Electoral College in 20 years, he thinks they would.

Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOTORRO'S "MOTTE-ROCK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.