Democrats are complaining about the Electoral College once again.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who is running for president, told a CNN town hall on Monday night in Mississippi that she wanted to abolish it because it meant that candidates avoided states that were not “battleground states.” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) followed suit on Tuesday, telling CNN the Electoral College was “conceived in sin” to “perpetuat[e] slavery.”
Fact Check: FALSE.
They are both wrong.
The Electoral College is an institution created by Article II of the Constitution for the election of the president. It provides that each state will appoint a certain number of “electors,” equal to the number of representatives it has in Congress (House plus Senate). The electors are to meet in their respective states and cast their votes for president. The votes from all the states are then counted in Congress, and the person who wins a majority is elected president.
The primary purpose of the Electoral College was to serve as a brake on populism. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 68: “A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment” necessary to select a person with “the requisite qualifications,” who would not use “low intrigue” or “little arts of popularity” to sway the masses of the people to support him.
In other words, the Electoral College was designed as an anti-populist measure. Over time, the votes of the electors became more or less automatic — that is, all of a state’s electors generally case their vote for whichever presidential candidate wins the majority of votes in that state. Few were particularly bothered about that, until George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000 despite losing the popular vote. Even after that, Democrats did not change the system.
Then came the election of Donald Trump, which Democrats still regard as illegitimate. Many cling to conspiracy theories that Trump somehow conspired with Russia to steal the presidency. The real (non-)secret was that Trump campaigned in Midwestern states Democrats had taken for granted. (Hillary Clinton did not even visit Wisconsin in the general election.) Warren, Cohen, and others now want to undo the system that allowed Trump to win.
But their diagnosis of the problem is wrong. The reason candidates avoid states like California, Mississippi, and Massachusetts during the general election campaign has less to do with the Electoral College and more to do with the fact that they consistently choose one party over another. (Candidates do campaign vigorous in those states during the primary stage, and visit wealthy liberal states during the general election to hold political fundraisers.)
It is true that a national popular vote would mean that voters who are in the minority in any given state would see their votes “count.” But it is untrue that candidates would therefore spend more time in rural states or small states. Quite the opposite: presidential campaigns would shift to focus on the country’s dense population centers, such as the New York tri-state area and Southern California. Elections would probably be less, not more, representative. As President Trump tweeted Tuesday: “With the Popular Vote, you go to … just the large States – the Cities would end up running the Country. Smaller States & the entire Midwest would end up losing all power.”
A national popular vote would also enable cheating. Democrats know the voting rules are loosest in states they control, like California. In the 2018 midterm elections, for example, they used “ballot harvesting,” in which activists delivered thousands of mail-in ballots for other people. The practice is illegal in many states, but Democrats legalized it in California. They want to run up the score there, then use their “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact” to award other states’ electoral votes to the popular vote winner. Republicans cannot accept that.
Then there is Cohen’s argument about slavery. He claims that the Electoral College was preferred by southern states because it allowed them greater clout than a national popular vote. Northern states could, theoretically, allow all of their adult residents to vote (though few did at the time). Southern states denied slaves the right to vote — but were allowed to count them, due to the infamous three-fifths compromise, in the size of their congressional delegations.
That is part of the history of the Electoral College — even after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, when Democrats in the South continued to restrict the right of blacks to vote until the latter half of the twentieth century.
But that is not the reason the Electoral College was created, and at this stage it has no effect whatsoever on the way we elect presidents. (Arguably, it is Democrats today that want to disenfranchise black voters, and other citizens, by counting illegal aliens in the Census toward the apportionment of congressional representatives to the states.)
If anything, the current system favors the Democrats, because they are virtually guaranteed to win New York, California, and other large “blue” states with large numbers of electoral votes. (And it is quite possible that if the Electoral College functioned as originally designed, the electors would have stopped Trump from taking office.)
The simple reason Democrats want to abolish the Electoral College is to rig the system so that they cannot lose. It is self-interest masquerading as civic virtue.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.