Podcast  

Democracy Paradox: Alexander Keyssar on Why We Still Have the Electoral College

Alex Keyssar sits down with Democracy Paradox in an episode sponsored by the Ash Center for a discussion of his book, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?

I think that if you got rid of the Electoral College, in the short run, there would be losers. But it hasn’t always been the same group and it hasn’t always been the same party. Alex Keyssar headshot

Alex Keyssar

Matthew W. Stirling, Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy

Transcript

In 2016 Hillary Clinton received the most votes for president, but lost the election. She lost, because of an American institution known as the Electoral College. It was not the first time the winner of the popular vote lost an election and it is probably not the last. Americans have long recognized the flaws of their system for electing presidents. Efforts to reform the process date back to the early 19th Century. And yet, the Electoral College is still with us.

Alex Keyssar is among those who have asked Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? His book explores the history behind efforts for reform. He considers how the different sides of the debate changed over time and why they have repeatedly failed in their efforts. Alex Keyssar is the Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard University and the author of the book Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?

Our conversation considers why the origin of the Electoral College and the different proposals to reform it. We reflect on why those efforts failed throughout American history. Finally, we consider what kind of political environment is necessary for reform to succeed. It’s a timely conversation for an election year where the Electoral College may once again elect a President who loses the popular vote.

This episode is produced with the support of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School. The Ash Center produces remarkable work from some of the world’s most renowned scholars. You can learn more at ash.harvard.edu.

The podcast is also sponsored by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, part of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. The Kellogg Institute was founded by Guillermo O’Donnell, one of the giants of democratic thought, more than 40 years ago. It continues to sponsor research on democracy and human development. Check them out at Kellogg.nd.edu. You’ll find a link in the show notes to their website. If you’re interested in becoming a sponsor of the podcast, please send me an email to jkempf@democracyparadox.com.

But for now… This is my conversation with Alexander Keyssar…

jmk
Alex Keyssar, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Alex Keyssar
It’s a pleasure to be here.
jmk
Well, Alex, I loved your book, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? It’s an interesting title because the way that it’s phrased is about the present. Why do we still have the electoral college? But in a lot of ways, it was really a book of history where it’s talking about how we got to this point, like the history of reform efforts about the Electoral College. So, I found it extremely fascinating, but the way the question is worded yet again, brings up another important question, which is why do we have the electoral college at all? And in reading your book, most of the reasons that I thought we had the electoral college turned out to be wrong. So why don’t we open it up there? Can you explain to us why the founders settled on the electoral college as a means to select presidents in the first place?
Alexander Keyssar
Sure. I mean, I can do my best to try to answer that. I think settled is the right word there. When you look at the transcripts of the constitutional convention, it’s clear that they were very uncertain about how to choose a chief executive. Past historical experience did not include elected chief executives. The chief executive was the king or in different states people appointed by the king. They knew they didn’t want to do that. The default position actually, as the convention began was that Congress would choose the chief executive. The thought was Congress will make the laws and then the role of the chief executive is just to execute them. Several times in the course of the summer, they start meeting in May and go into early September, they had straw votes about that. That was the position that had the most support.
But as soon as they would do that, or even while they were doing that, they would say this is really not a good idea because we believe in separation of powers. We want to avoid too much concentration of power and if Congress chooses the president, the president’s going to be dependent on Congress and they went around and around on that. What if the president can only serve one term? But they just didn’t think it was a good idea. A whole bunch of other ideas sprouted up in the course of the summer, including the idea of having a national popular vote, which several people, including notably James Madison, favored.
Madison commented that it would disadvantage his own state because of slavery, if you had a national popular vote. He thought it was the best way to go anyway. But he did not have wide support. He had very little support in the South. At one point, they thought about having governors choose the president. They got to the end of the summer and most of the Constitution was drafted, but there were still some things that were left unsettled, including how to choose a president. So, they did what any large gathering would do. They went on vacation for a week and they left things in the hands of a Committee on Unfinished Parts and the Committee on Unfinished Parts came up with the idea of the basic outlines of an electoral college.
The idea conceptually had been there on and off during the summer. The notion that you would choose some group of intermediaries who would choose the president. That’s really how the idea originated. The convention tinkered with the committee’s view. But what the electoral college was, I mean, in many respects, was a way of having popular involvement, but not necessarily having a national popular election. There was concern among other things that the people would not know who the candidates were. Whereas, if there were electors who were chosen who were supposed to be among the wisest and most experienced members of the community, they might have more familiarity. That was part of the rationale for having intermediaries.
But the other attraction of the design of the electoral college was that any electoral process which they were going to deal with was going to have to deal with two issues that they had already wrestled with very hard about the structure of Congress. One was about slavery. Would slaves count in any way? The other was about the large states. In other words, do all states have equal power or should it go by population? Those issues have been compromised for Congress earlier in the summer by creating a bicameral legislature where the House is proportional to population and the Senate gives the same power to each state. Then the slavery issue had been compromised by saying that slaves counted towards three fifths of a person in deciding how many seats you got in the House.
What the Electoral College did instead of reopening those questions was to import the solutions they had already reached with respect to Congress into presidential selection, so that the number of electors that each state got was equal to the number of representatives it got, plus the number of senators. So, they avoided dealing with that whole issue of who counts and who has that much influence. For presidential elections by just adopting the formulas they had already adopted in a sense, you can think of the electoral college as a replica of Congress, but they only meet once and do no other business. So, the fears of corruption or conflict of interest or breaking down separation of powers were avoided because this replica of Congress didn’t do any other business except choose a president.
But they believed that the decision would only sometimes be made by the electoral colleges, because what the constitution says is that you have to win a majority of votes in the electoral colleges to be elected president, not a plurality. You have to win a majority. If nobody wins a majority, then the election reverts to the house where there’s a peculiar decision rule that each state gets one vote and in the way they were imagining presidential politics, this would happen quite frequently.
Because they were not picturing a world with parties, there were no separate elections for president and vice president in the initial design. They expected to have three, four, five, six candidates each time. So, they thought it would often occur that there was not a majority in the electoral college and that this other process, the quote contingent process, contingent on whether or not they got a majority would go into operation.
jmk
There’s a lot to chew on there. One of the things that comes to mind is that as we’re looking at it, in hindsight, it just seems like the most obvious solution is a national popular vote. The way that we do things today, we would think we should just have a national popular vote. One of the common explanations for why we didn’t do that is that they wanted to have intermediaries because they were afraid of democracy. But I’ve also heard a second reason why a national popular vote didn’t make sense at the time. It’s that conducting an election over that large of an area just didn’t seem feasible. It didn’t seem possible. You mentioned one of the other reasons is that people wouldn’t know who the candidates were. There wasn’t a very strong established sense of mass media.
So, I guess I was surprised to find that there was support for national popular vote. And I’m curious how that would have been conducted. Do you think that that was practical at the founding for that to have occurred?
Alexander Keyssar
I think that they probably could have made it practical. But I think that the obstacles seem very clear and very obvious. As you described, it’s not only that there’s no mass media, it takes a lot of time for information to get from Boston to Western Massachusetts, not to mention other states, which were geographically larger and more dispersed. They probably could have figured it out, but actually methods of voting were pretty much unsystematized at the time. I think that it would be erroneous of us to simply say that’s just a cover for their undemocratic instincts. I think that there was a real issue there.
But we also have to remember that there were significant restrictions on voting in most states at this time. Voting requirements were left to the states. That was one thing. There’s no federal voting requirement. The only thing in the constitution that shows up is that anyone can vote for the House of Representatives who can vote for the most numerous branch of the state legislature. So, there’s a tie in between voting rights in the state and voting rights for the House of Representatives. But the protection against the rabble taking control was really in voting qualifications much more than in the structure of the electoral college. But again, there were people… Madison was not alone, but Madison was pretty shrewd. He thought that they could figure out how to have a national popular vote, but there was a lot of opposition to it.
jmk
So, for those of us who know our history well, we know that the Electoral College was one of the first constitutional reforms that came into being. It was the 12th amendment and the first 10 are all kind of packaged together as the Bill of Rights, so it’s one of the very first constitutional amendments that comes into being very early in the life of the republic.
One of the big reasons why was because each elector actually cast two votes for president, which is difficult to get our heads around why you would need to cast two votes. It creates problems for trying to create majorities. So why is it that that was the system that was put in place? Why did they think that that made sense for electors to cast two votes? Not that they would foresee the problems, but why did they think that it even made sense in the first place?
Alexander Keyssar
Well, they thought that there should be a president and vice president and their notion was you wanted to have the best people as determined by the people in office. The structure of the election before the 12th amendment was that the person who got the most votes, if a majority, became president. The person who got the second most votes became vice president. They were not necessarily people who represented the same ideals and interests. That’s how we ended up with Adams as president and Jefferson as vice president from 1796 to 1800. So, it was really like, we know we want to elect two people. Whoever gets the most votes becomes president. Whoever gets the second most becomes vice president. Then, of course, that system crashed in the election of 1800.
By this point, parties were forming or had formed proto-parties. There were Federalists and Republicans. There were formal parties, but they were there and everybody knew who they were. But with the Republicans, Jefferson and Burr, the two candidates, got the same number of votes, so they were in a tie. The election thus reverted to the house. It led to the peculiar situation where all the Republicans knew that Jefferson was supposed to be the presidential candidate and Burr was supposed to be the vice president. But in fact, the outcome of that election in the House would depend on how the other faction, the Federalist faction, voted. They were deadlocked for a number of ballots until finally one Federalist delegation cast its votes or actually decided not to vote so that Jefferson would get a majority. That was the crisis of the election and nobody liked it.
They had also discovered in the course of the 70s, 90s, that having this system where you cast two votes led to a kind of gaming of the system by clever operatives. You know, just as we have our clever operatives today, they had theirs. So, if, for example, you wanted your rough team to win, but you didn’t like the person who was supposed to be at the head of your ticket, but there were no tickets and there was no official designation, you could withhold your votes from that person in order to try to encourage your guy to get into office.
It was in good part for that reason that the 12th amendment is passed. Basically, it calls for what is referred to as designation. Certain votes are designated as being for president, others for vice president. That results in the formal establishment of party tickets where you have a president and a vice presidential candidate.
jmk
It also highlights the fact that the Electoral College did not act as a deliberative body the way that people thought it would.
Alexander Keyssar
Right. Again, the initial conception was that the electors would meet and deliberate and discuss and there were all sorts of structures set up to make that possible. For example, the electors meet in each state. They don’t all meet together. They meet in each state capital, but on the same day. They’re trying to avoid influence or collusion from one state to another. They meet on the same day to discuss, but that basically did not happen. By the end of the 1790s, it was clear that the electors were messengers and not deliberators.
jmk
It’s interesting because it would have made a lot of sense to have the electors all meet together. Because something like what happened in 1800, where Burr and Jefferson got the same number of votes, wouldn’t have happened because they would have gotten together, talked about how they were planning to vote and gone ‘Oh, wow, this is going to be a tie. Let’s have one of us not vote for Aaron Burr.’ The system might’ve actually worked if they all got together and actually talked amongst each other before they cast the ballots. But again, that’s a road not taken and I’m not sure that that’s really a great road to go down long term, but brings us to some of the other reforms that really didn’t go anywhere.
Some of the more novel, interesting reforms happened during the antebellum era. For instance, talk about creating electoral votes that are tied to congressional districts or districts of some kind so that a state like California that has over 50 electoral votes wouldn’t cast all their votes for the same presidential candidate. Early on a lot of states didn’t cast their votes for the same presidential candidate. There was a lot of diversity, but what was the idea behind district elections? Why was that such a popular road to go and why didn’t it actually go anywhere? Why didn’t it actually succeed?
Alexander Keyssar
A very good question, which it took me many pages on and off in the book to try to explain. The starting point is that the constitution left it up to the states to decide the manner in which electors would be chosen. This all remains true today. Then at the outset, some states had what were called winner take all elections. More of them had district elections. In other words, they said let’s choose electors by district. There were a couple of different variants of the plan. One was by congressional district. You could do congressional district, but there are two more electoral votes than there are congressional districts. So, you could do congressional district and then whoever won the whole state got the two or you could have a redistricting according to the number of electors.
Both of those were tried. Both of those were implemented. It was also possible for the legislature to choose electors by itself. That was also left open because it was in such manner as the legislature shall decide. There were some states that did that. I think it’s clear that most of the framers and many other politically active people at the time believed that assigning electors by district was the best available system. The notion that the entire state would cast all of its electoral votes for one candidate seemed to violate the basic republican principles that they were talking about.
But what happens is that they get into a partisan competition and a partisan game of who’s going to use the rules to manipulate the system. In fact, in the 1796 election, which Jefferson lost quite closely to Adams, he lost a couple of electoral votes in Virginia. There were a couple of Virginia electors who voted for Adams. Well, when they come into the rematch in 1800 and it looks like it’s again, going to be a close election, the Virginia legislature said, ‘We don’t want that to happen again.’ So, they switched the system from districts to winner take all. It’s a partisan move. It’s to pick up a few more electoral votes for Jefferson. Shockingly, Massachusetts responds by doing something similar. They turn it over to the legislature, which will result in winner take all.
So, in effect. winner take all is the option a party that thinks it’s dominant in a state will opt for for partisan advantage, not because they believe it’s a better system. There was a lot of support for having a constitutional amendment to mandate districts and a constitutional amendment to that effect was passed several times by the Senate in the 1810s and the 1820s, but it failed narrowly to get the requisite two thirds majority in the House. In one year, it was only about four or five votes short of the two thirds majority. So, we came very close at that point to adopting a system that would have mandated district elections for electors. That would have changed the structure of American elections from that point forward.
jmk
In a lot of ways, it’s not about whether it’s district elections or whether it’s proportional elections within states or whether it’s state legislators selecting the electors, it’s really about whether or not there’s winner take all or some measure of adopting proportionality for those electors, because that’s really the big dividing line, particularly during this era, but really over any reform movement that wants to keep the basic mechanism of the Electoral College in place, but dramatically reform it at the same time. It’s about trying to break down this incentive for states to adopt winner take all. I found that really fascinating. The fact that there’s so many efforts to break that down in different ways that continue to go on into the 20th century.
Technically, we have two states that have actually bucked that trend, Nebraska and Maine. But nearly every other state has kind of sided with winner take all. Why is it that a more progressive state, and I say progressive in the more expansive sense, like a state that wants to be able to make reform hasn’t just decided to make that first step to become a state with more proportionality for its electors? Why hasn’t a state like California or a state like Oregon or New York made that decision to say, ‘We’re going to be the first and establish a trend for others to follow’?
Alexander Keyssar
It’s a very good question. The simple general answer is that this is a situation where the first mover is sacrificing power. If California switches to a district system, that means that the Democrats in California are probably giving up 15 electoral votes by doing that. There’s nothing else that’s going to happen in any other states that’s going to compensate for it. In other words, you can act as a state alone, but the dominant party in the first mover states suffers political consequences. Michigan in the 1890s actually succeeded in creating a district system. Then there was a partisan political reaction against them for having done that by the other party, which was, I think, the Republicans and they were punished for having tried. It was debated many times in other states.
The real example that I know of involving California was where the Democrats were on the verge of succeeding in imposing a district system in North Carolina, which was a state that had long been Democratic but was becoming Republican, majority Republican. The Democrats thought that if they switched to a district system, they would pick up four, five, six electoral votes. The governor was Democratic. It was probably the last moment they could have done this. They had both chambers of the legislature and they were on the verge of doing it. It was all set to do it. Then they got a call from Howard Dean, who was the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He called them and said don’t do it. He probably believed in it, but he said don’t do it.
Why did he say don’t do it? Because the Republicans in California had an identical proposal to switch from winner take all to districts and the Democratic Party did not want to be in a situation of arguing for a particular reform in one state, North Carolina, and against it in another state, California. The trade off was that they would win four or five electoral votes by doing it in North Carolina, but they would lose about 20 electoral votes if it went through in California.
It is really a first mover problem. The solution to which is a national solution, which cannot happen just by legislation. It would have to happen by a constitutional amendment because it would have to override the provision that says that each state could choose electors in such matter as the legislature decides. Again, not only in the early 19th century, but in the 20th century, there have been attempts to do that. In 1950 the Senate approved the constitutional amendment that would have called for proportional elections. The reasoning behind this is very complicated, but the House rejected it six weeks later.
jmk
I found it fascinating how those who supported reforming the Electoral College through having district elections were oftentimes opposed to the national popular vote and those who favored a national popular vote saw great danger in establishing district elections for electors. The reason why oftentimes revolved around civil rights and issues of race. Can you elaborate on why race and civil rights really was a pivotal issue in terms of reforming the electoral college, even long after slavery had been abolished?
Alexander Keyssar
Absolutely. I think it’s important to understanding this issue and it’s not self-evident. I was surprised by what I turned up in this. Understanding this issue is really critical to understanding American political history. So, let’s start first with the question of a national popular vote and what that has to do with race after slavery. We know that when there was slavery, if you had a national popular vote, the Southern states would have lost the credit they got for three fifths of each slave. So, they didn’t want to do that. In fact, they made discussion of a national popular vote nearly impossible in the antebellum period.
But what happens after the Civil War and after the reconstruction constitutional amendments are passed is the formal enfranchising black people who are saying you can’t discriminate based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Depending on the state, for about 10, 15, maybe even 20 years in the South, African Americans could vote. But then, in one state after another, they were disenfranchised, despite the 15th Amendment. But they still counted 100 percent towards representation. So, in effect, the South, by the 1880s, 1890s, was benefiting from a five fifths clause rather than a three fifths clause. African Americans counted a hundred percent towards representation in Congress and electoral votes, but they still couldn’t vote.
Well, from the perspective of the white South that was a good system. I mean, that gave them more power. If they switched to a national popular vote at that point, the white South would have lost a great deal of power. It would have lost about 30 percent of its influence over presidential elections. So white Southerners, with very rare exceptions, were adamantly opposed to adopting a national popular vote.
jmk
Something that I found was interesting is I think you compared two different states that were the same in electoral votes. It was like Connecticut and a Southern state and the difference in the number of voters was like nine fold or something. It was a dramatic difference.
Alexander Keyssar
Exactly, or there was another comparison, I forget exactly what it was, but if you took the electoral votes from two states compared to eight states in the South, they had the same number of electoral votes, but the popular vote difference was enormous. It was many fewer popular votes resulting in the same number of electoral votes depending on the state in which people live. So, the South benefited immensely and they just did not want to have a national popular vote and with respect to districts, race plays out differently because creating a districting system would not change their relative power.
What a districting system would have done would have been to split up the electoral votes of the large, often liberal states of the North. New York was the particular target. But New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, those were big states, whereas the allocation of electoral votes in the South would not have changed very much because of districting, because there was only one party effective in the South. So, in some respects, and there are moments in there when the South, a one-party region was all for districting or proportional systems, but the North was against it because they would lose regional power against the South.
jmk
You bring up an interesting point too how the systems influence the type of candidates and the type of policies that are being put forth at the presidential level. Because even though Congress is very much dominated by Southerners at the time and efforts to stop civil rights legislation, presidents are starting to become much more supportive of civil rights, sort of beginning with FDR, but definitely starting with Truman and then Eisenhower. You can see a direct line going through and it’s not just Democrats. Both Democrats and Republicans find that they need to win those Northern liberal states because they’re voting as a block. You need to get the majority of votes in those Northern states to win. So, all the candidates in both parties are becoming increasingly more liberal in terms of civil rights issues.
Alexander Keyssar
I mean that’s true in the north, but with the exception of southern whites, most of them, not all, there are Southern white liberals, but most Southern white politicians are viewing this growing liberalism with great fear and antagonism. Indeed, it becomes a given in Southern politics by the late 1940s – there’s an important book written about this where the claim is that the Electoral College is the most important bulwark for preserving the Southern way of life and for preserving a world without voting rights or civil rights for African Americans because the electoral college really protected against having a president who would do anything to undercut those rights.
Then moving to a very important episode in our national history, although one that is little known, which is that in 1969, the pressure is building for electoral college reform partly over these issues of race, partly over the general dissatisfaction with the system, partly over the threat that third party candidates could get some electoral votes and could become kingmakers, plus, just for ideological reasons that the Electoral College is not democratic and everybody knew it. So, thanks to the efforts of a number of key leaders in Congress, in 1969, the House approves a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with a national popular vote. It does this by an 82 percent vote. You need a two thirds vote for a constitutional amendment and you get an 82 percent vote in the house in 1969.
I mean, just imagine that. You couldn’t get an 82 percent vote in the current Congress on what day it was and they got an 82 percent vote in favor of abolishing the Electoral College. It then went to the Senate and the story is long and complicated, but the short version of it is that Southern conservatives, with a little help from some conservative white Midwestern Republicans, filibuster the constitutional amendment in the Senate. Although a majority of the Senate is in favor of this constitutional amendment, they don’t have the requisite votes to break the filibuster. That comes to a head in 1970. There are echoes of it later in the 1970s, but the 1969-70 period is the closest we’ve ever come to absolutely abolishing the electoral college.
jmk
Did they filibuster it just so they didn’t have to put themselves on record as against it?
Alexander Keyssar
Yes, in part. Because the weird thing, and I was scratching my head because breaking a filibuster took the same number of votes at the time as it would have taken to pass a constitutional amendment, which was you needed a two thirds vote. So, the question was why didn’t they just let it go and have a vote on it? I think there were some people who did not want to vote, but tactically the Southerners saw that they had two ways of killing this. The first was to prevent it from coming to a vote in the Senate.
Then if that happened, they would get a second shot at it with the constitutional amendment supermajority. They decided not to wait until they only had one shot. So, they mounted a filibuster so as to say we can kill this now before it even gets through for a vote and they succeeded.
jmk
So, the movement for electoral college reform really dies down in the late 20th century. Part of the reason why is because people start to believe that it’s incredibly unlikely for the electoral college to produce a vote that is different than the national popular vote. They just figure that there’s no difference between the two. So, it seems like a silly historical anachronism, but it’s not really harmful in any way.
In 2000, we have the first wrong winner outcome in over 100 years where somebody loses the popular vote but wins the electoral college. But it’s an incredibly close election. You could argue it was within the range of a statistical tie. Sixteen years later, we have another wrong winner outcome, but this one is significantly bigger. It’s two percent difference between the two candidates. It starts to make us realize that the difference between the electoral college and the popular vote could get even larger over time. It’s not necessarily going to be something that’s a statistical tie. These could be dramatically different outcomes depending on how politics evolves into the future.
It always amazed me when we thought that the Electoral College didn’t really make a difference. That it was just going to produce the popular vote outcome, because people still argued that it had importance to be able to give small states their due, to make it so different people were heard in different ways. It seems that even if the Electoral College doesn’t produce a difference between the popular vote, it seemed like people were saying that it did have some influence on politics. Let’s set aside the two elections where there was a difference in 2000 and 2016. Even when there is no difference between the two, do you think that the electoral college shapes presidential politics? Does it shape the type of candidates who run? Does it shape the issues that they bring forth to the voters?
Alexander Keyssar
I think it does shape the issues. There have been times when it determined the candidates. There’s a long run in the 20th century when a very high proportion of the candidates were from Ohio, either presidential or vice-presidential candidates, because Ohio was seen as being so critical to presidential politics. I think that the Electoral College deforms presidential campaigns. The presidential campaigns now take place in a handful of swing states. It narrows the election to a certain number of states. Then the issues that get focused on are the issues that pollsters and political managers believe are salient to those states and that’s really what gets the attention. So, political campaigns are focusing their issue discussions on the swing voters in half a dozen or six to 10 states and not paying much attention to other things.
There’s another impact of this also, which is that no matter which party is in power in Congress or in the presidency, swing states are much more likely to get federal help for things than are other states. You need money for a bridge that’s fallen down. If you’re a swing state, you’re a whole lot more likely to get that money than if you’re not. So, I think that it deforms presidential campaigns in terms of popular engagement and the very high proportion of the money spent that’s spent in swing states, the amount that candidates are campaigning.
Again, here in Massachusetts, we never see presidential candidates unless they’re coming in for an afternoon to raise money and they might or might not even have a big public appearance. The same is true of California. There are a lot of trips to California to raise money, but almost no campaign events. So, I think that is a serious deforming effect that the Electoral College has independent, as you say, of the issue of the wrong winners, which have now occurred twice and may be more likely to occur now than in other periods.
Let me add just two things, if I may, Justin, to your discussion before. I think that the dying down of interest in the Electoral College begins really in the 1980s after there’s another attempt by Democrats in the mid-1970s and it fails worse than 1969-70. Then in the course of the 1980s, the Republican Party becomes increasingly convinced that the electoral college serves their interests and that they want, and thus, unlike what was the case in 1965, or ‘60 or ’70, Republican support for electoral college reform starts to vanish in the 1980s. That makes it extremely unlikely that you could get a two thirds majority in Congress.
But the second thing to be said about wrong winner elections, and this is the example where conventional wisdom proved to be dramatically wrong is if you look at the statements of pundits, people writing about these issues in the 1990s, it was conventional wisdom that if we ever had a wrong winner election, if we ever had an election, which hadn’t happened in more than a century, but if we ever had an election in which the person who won the popular vote did not win the electoral vote, that that system would be changed immediately. There are a lot of people convinced, of course, that would happen and it didn’t happen. It didn’t even come close after the 2000 election.
jmk
That raises an important question. We’ve had lots of moments where the electoral college raised important issues. We could go to 1876. We could go to 1888. We could go to 2000. We could even go to 2016 and there are many other years that we could talk to talk about. I mean, 1960 comes to mind. Why have other reforms passed, but the electoral college remains? I mean, women have the right to vote, we have direct election of senators, we made so many different changes at different points of American history, but it seems like we’ve overlooked a glaring flaw in the constitution of the Electoral College. Why is it that that one remains while other flaws were changed?
Alexander Keyssar
I think it’s because the obstacles to change, the people who feared the change or factions or groups that feared the change, were stronger with respect to the Electoral College than with respect to other changes that have been made. You know, women’s suffrage was a big deal. It’s enfranchising half the population. Certainly, there was a lot of fear that if women got the right to vote, who knows what would happen. The family would collapse, possibly the skies would shatter. There was a great advantage with respect to women’s suffrage that in fact it happened first in a number of states. There’s a chance over a period of a decade or two to take a look and say it happened to these states and everybody’s still standing and families are intact. It’s remarkable.
So, it was a way to diminish what was really a psychological rather than a political fear. Enfranchising people who are over 18 also didn’t change anything that much. I think that if you got rid of the Electoral College, in the short run, there would be losers. But it hasn’t always been the same group and it hasn’t always been the same party. I articulated earlier the reason why the white South, in effect, had a veto on a national popular vote from 1800 at least into the 1970s. One might argue that there is still something of that present today.
What’s been somewhat unique about the recent period, which for me, as a historian is the last 35 years or 40 years, is that there has been one party, which is adamantly opposed to reform, which is the Republican party. That hasn’t always been true in the past. It hasn’t always broken down along party lines. If we’re looking at the last 150 years or 160 years, there have been two formidable blocks to reform. One had to do with white supremacy in the South and the other has to do with the position of the Republican Party and what seems increasingly to be its desire to wield power without having popular majorities,
jmk
Still in the book, you hint that there are windows for reforms like this to happen. It seems like we missed the one that happened in the late sixties. There was a window for reform and we weren’t able to get through it before it closed. What’s remarkable is that groups in the past who have opposed reform for short term advantage, oftentimes found that it worked against them in the long term. That as politics changes, things that they think are in their interests turn out to be things that they’re campaigning for on the opposite side later on.
One thing that comes to my mind right now is that Republicans think that they have an Electoral College advantage today, but if the Democrats took Texas, that would make it almost impossible for the Republicans to ever win the electoral college until they were able to compete in a whole host of new states. Is that the type of political environment that would be necessary to lead to reform? The idea that Republicans were afraid to lose a key state like that that would shift the balance of power. What type of political environment would make sense for a kind of reform like this to happen?
Alexander Keyssar
I think there are two and they may be overlapping. One is the example that you point to, which is that if in a number of states, the outcome of a presidential election seems unpredictable. If you’re the head of a political party, say Texas or Georgia, Georgia looks more like this case last time. If you’re the head of the Republican Party in Georgia and you think that you’re going to win a majority in Georgia why not keep winner take all. That’s in my advantage. I deliver votes to the national committee, the national party. But if it’s uncertain about whether I’m going to win or not and the odds are unpredictable, I might prefer to take half a loaf rather than wait for winner take all. I might prefer to guarantee I will get 45 to 50 percent of the vote in a national popular election.
In an environment where there’s uncertainty in more states that would do it. The other thing which could occur and this builds on the historical precedence is that if there are changes going on in the structures and the strengths of political parties in the period, which I referred to about the 1810s and 1820s when we came very close to doing it. That was a period when there was really only one party. The Federalist party had collapsed. The Whig party had not yet been created. Everybody was a Democratic Republican. There were factions all over the place, but there weren’t party lines that permitted focused calculations of advantage. Similarly, in 1969-70, in that period, it is also a period of party flux.
I would argue, and I do argue in the book, that I don’t think there’s a two-party system in the United States in 1969-70. The southern and northern wings of the Democratic Party were really not on the same page about very much. Southern Democrats were beginning to flow in large numbers into the Republican Party changing that party too, but also changing the lines of cleavage. So, then you had Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the issue at that time. What we have now are much more ideologically defined parties where you don’t find liberals in both parties, but I think that if the Republican party were to divide after the current election, presumably the scenario is if they lost, if they lost badly and then never-Trumpers or whoever…
But, I mean, there are tensions within the party. The party has become a MAGA party. So, will center right people create another conservative party? I think in a circumstance like that, if there are multiple parties, the chances of getting Electoral College reform are also strengthened.
jmk
Alex Keyssar, thank you so much for joining me today. To mention the book one more time, it’s called, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? Thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you so much for writing the book.
Alexander Keyssar
It’s been a pleasure. This has been, I must say… I’ve done a lot of interviews. You’ve been… Your questions have been very much on target and reflect a really careful reading of the book. I appreciate that.

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