Gary Pearce: Is the Electoral College un-American?

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, August 26, 2020

By Gary Pearce

In the seven presidential elections since 1988, the Republican candidate has won the national popular vote only once. That was George W. Bush in 2004.

Twice, in 2000 and 2016, Republicans (Bush and Donald Trump) lost the popular vote but won the presidency, thanks to the Electoral College.

This year, President Trump could make the GOP’s popular-vote record one for eight. In fact, polls suggest he could lose the popular vote to Joe Biden by even more than he did to Hillary Clinton. Yet he could still win another four years in the White House.

Pundits fret about what Trump will do if he loses. But what will Trump’s opponents do if he stays in the White House thanks to an Electoral College that was designed in the 18th Century — and that critics say is undemocratic, unrepresentative and un-American?

Already, a poll this month shows, 55% of American adults are either “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that the November elections will be conducted in a fair and equal way. The NBC/SurveyMonkey poll said just 14% are “very confident” and 29% somewhat confident in the fairness of the election.

As always, there’s a partisan split: 65% of Republicans are not confident in election fairness. That’s not surprising considering President Trump’s claims of voter fraud and a rigged election.

But Democrats have doubts, too; 46% of them aren’t confident about November’s results. So are a majority of independents, 56%.

You can bet those numbers will go up if Trump loses the popular vote and still gets reelected.

But don’t expect bipartisan support for abolishing the Electoral College. Republicans like how it has worked for them lately. Democrats hate it for the same reason.

It’s one more divide in our bitterly divided country.

Partisan lenses obscure how the Electoral College distorts presidential races.

Only a dozen or so states matter. The rest are so predictable that candidates pay no attention to them. That’s true of big states like California and New York and tiny ones like Wyoming and Rhode Island. It used to be true of North Carolina, until Barack Obama made us a battleground state.

This year, some analysts say only four states matter: Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

This wasn’t the Founding Fathers’ plan.

The Founders didn’t trust “the people” — which back then meant just white men — to elect presidents. How could voters know enough about the candidates?

They didn’t want Congress to pick the president; Congress would be too powerful.

So they settled on the Electoral College. Each state would elect “electors” who would size up the candidates and choose the best man.

But then states began instructing their electors to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state. That winner-take-all system remains today, except in Maine and Nebraska, which award electors by congressional district.

That’s how we got to presidential elections that are all about battleground states.

Opponents of a national popular vote for president contend that only big cities and big states would get attention. That’s nonsense. The presidential candidates, like candidates for senator, governor and every other office in our nation, would go wherever they could get votes: big cities, small towns, rural areas, suburbs. They’d go to blue states, red states and purple states.

President Trump would campaign in California and New York. Joe Biden would go to Alabama and Oklahoma. They’d go everywhere. They’d go to the people.

That would be good for the candidates, for the people and for America. Most of all, it could save us from an election crisis that tears our country apart.

Gary Pearce blogs at