I have been a staunch defender of the Electoral College, that quaint mechanism left over from the early days of the republic. You may well know how it works, though many people don’t.
When you voted for president last week, you in fact voted not for a candidate, but for a slate of sixteen people who pledge to vote for that candidate. The winning electors will drive to Lansing on December 19 and cast their votes in longhand as they would have done in 1792.
In every state except Maine and Nebraska, the winner of the popular vote gets all that state’s electoral votes. Based on how the states voted, Donald Trump will then be formally elected by a vote of 306 to 232. But here’s the problem with that.
Far more people actually voted for Hillary Clinton. She currently has a lead of about 700,000 votes, and there are still millions left to count, mostly in the overwhelmingly Democratic states of Washington and California.
When it’s all over she may have won by more than two million.
In other words, the popular will is being thwarted, because of something left over from a time when the founders wanted a set of wise men to pick a president for us. These days, most of the electors are party activists who are given this symbolic honor as a reward for service.
These aren’t a group of political philosophers, and no one wants them to debate the merits of the candidates. One of the Republican electors is a convicted felon who served four years in federal prison.
They are just supposed to show up and vote.
For way more than a century, the electoral vote was always won by the winner of the popular vote. In fact, it usually magnified the margin of the winner, and added legitimacy to his presidency.
Ronald Reagan, for example, got 51% of the popular vote in 1980, but more than 90% of the electoral vote.
But now things have changed. We’ve had two cases in 16 years in which the winner came out the loser.
Thanks to the fact that most states are safe for one party, it has become far more likely that the electoral result won’t mirror the popular one.
Also, virtually all campaigning is taking place in a tiny handful of swing states. Trump might have campaigned in California, if this was about winning approval from more citizens.
You might think I’m saying this because I am a liberal and both candidates who lost while winning were Democrats, but that’s not the case.
We almost had the opposite happen in 2004. George W. Bush won overall by three million popular votes. But he would have lost in the Electoral College had John Kerry carried Ohio.
Changing the Constitution by amendment would be difficult and take years. But there’s also something called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This is an agreement among the states that they will assign their electors to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote.
This would only kick in, however, when enough states have joined the compact to guarantee a majority. Michigan legislators should immediately sign us up. This would restore some legitimacy to our presidential elections.
And after this year, that’s something we certainly need.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.