On Monday night, in a CNN town hall in Jackson, Mississippi, Sen. Elizabeth Warren made some news: She supports getting rid of the electoral college as the method by which we elect presidents.
“My view is that every vote matters and the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting and that means get rid of the Electoral College – and every vote counts,” the Massachusetts Democrat said, to raucous applause from the audience (The Democratic base is very much up in arms over the Electoral College, after Donald Trump won the White House in 2016 despite losing the popular vote by almost 2.9 million votes to Hillary Clinton).
How realistic is what Warren is proposing? And how much – really – would it change how candidates campaign for the nation’s top job? To get some answers, I reached out to Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law expert and professor at the University of Texas Law School (Check out this talk Levinson gave at Harvard in 2016 for more of his thoughts on the Electoral College).
Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Warren said she favors abolishing the Electoral College to make “every vote matter.” Is that what getting rid of the Electoral College would do?
Levinson: Abolishing the Electoral College would certainly equalize the vote as a purely formal matter. Now, the strength of one’s vote – and, more to the point, the incentive to campaign – is a function of geography. Republican votes in contemporary California and Democratic votes in contemporary Texas are irrelevant. That would obviously not be the case in a national popular vote.
Cillizza: Warren was speaking in Jackson, Mississippi. If there was no Electoral College and only the national popular vote, would presidential candidates be campaigning there in the fall of a presidential election?
Levinson: Why not? It would be foolish to spend lots of time in Mississippi and smaller states, but that’s even more true now, especially given that almost all of the relevant states are completely predictable. Only New Hampshire is a battleground (unlike, say, Vermont next door). But Democrats would have a strong incentive to turn out minority voters in Mississippi and Alabama.
Cillizza: The argument for the popular vote is simple: He (or she) with the most votes wins. Make that sort of simple argument for the Electoral College.
Levinson: Actually, the kind of reform I favor is not quite so simple: that is, I don’t think it should be enough simply to come in first, because, as in 1968 and 1992, the winners could still have only 43% of the vote. Therefore I favor a runoff system, as in France or the state of Georgia or the alternative transferable vote, as in Maine. The argument is simple, though: A president should be able to claim the support of the majority. That is not now the case.
Cillizza: How would the country, logistically, go about abolishing the Electoral College? Is it at all plausible?
Levinson: Unfortunately, it would take a Constitutional amendment to achieve the kind of reform I think by far best. The proposal simply to award electoral votes to whoever comes in first does nothing at all to assure a genuine majoritarian choice, and it is easy to imagine a truly perverse result should we further fragment into multi-candidacies for the presidency.
At this point, we have to confront the truly terrible Article V of the Constitution and the barriers it places in the way of Constitutional amendment (The New York Times had a good discussion of this in an article on Birch Bayh and his inability to get an amendment through the awful Senate even after passing with strong support in the House and the support as well of Richard Nixon).
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The fairest way to determine the President of the United States is _________.”
Levinson: “through a process that allows the winner to claim majority approval of the total electorate.”