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Partisan Opposition to Electoral College May Make it Harder to Change

The executive director of a reformist group said an effort had been gaining ground in red and blue states, but partisanship could change that.
Image: Anti-Trump Protestors Continue To Demonstrate Across The Country
Protesters demonstrate against President-elect Donald Trump outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Nov. 13.Mark Makela / Getty Images

Making every vote count

Nov. 19, 201605:42

The Electoral College is under fire like never before. But the unprecedented and growing opposition to it, thanks to the partisan leanings of its detractors, may actually make it harder to charge the system.

Hillary Clinton won at least 1.4 million more votes than Donald Trump, but still lost the presidential contest because her votes came from the wrong combination of states. That's made her one of just five people in U.S. history to win the popular vote and lose the electoral college.

The first three were in the 1800s, and it happened again in 2000 with Al Gore’s electoral college loss to George W. Bush. That contest was complicated by other concerns including butterfly ballots and the Supreme Court, making Clinton the first pure victim of the Electoral College in the modern era.

Not surprisingly, the outcome has provoked an outpouring of demands for change.

Related: Sen. Boxer Calls for Abolishing Electoral College in Wake of Trump Win

California Sen. Barbara Boxer has introduced a bill to do away with the "outdated, undemocratic" electoral college. A likeminded petition on racked up nearly 4.5 million signatures. And more people have searched for information about the electoral college than any point since Google started keeping track.

For the tiny cottage industry of experts and activists who have battled each other on this obscure issue from statehouse to statehouse across the country, the attention is a bit dizzying.

"I've never seen this kind of energy in my life," said Patrick Rosenstiel of National Popular Vote, the main anti-Electoral College group. "We would generally have two to three people a day using the 'write your legislator' function on our website. Now we’re getting upwards 10,000 to 20,000 every day."

Traffic on the group’s website surged some 25,000 percent after the election, surpassing 1.75 million page views in the following week.

But the outcry is coming almost exclusively from Democrats, complicating reformers’ attempts to push the issue as a non-partisan reform to already skeptical red-state lawmakers.

Rob Richie, the longtime executive director and co-founder of the reformist group FairVote, called the uproar "a total doubled edged sword."

"In the real world of trying to change things, it's very hard with a partisan drive from one side and the other party being against it," he said. "It was in a place that it was starting to win a whole bunch of states and we'll just have to see how this impacts that, since people are getting more tribal."

Related: More Voters Chose Clinton, but Trump Will Be President

To opponents, the Electoral College is an obvious perversion of the one-person-one-vote rule, making tens of thousand voters in Ohio or Florida more important than the tens of millions who happen to live in California (the source of most of Clinton's popular vote lead) or Texas or any of the 37 other non-battleground states.

Candidates rarely visit those states, so their issues get ignored and they even get worse treatment from the federal government, according to NPV, which argues that presidents pay special attention to the needs of states they or their party has to win.

Eliminating the Electoral College entirely would require a constitutional amendment, which is nearly impossible. The last major attempt to abolish the electoral college that way ended in 1969, when a proposed amendment died by Senate filibuster after overwhelmingly passing the House.

Instead, today’s reformers have rallied behind a clever work-around that's merely very hard to achieve.

It's an interstate compact in which state legislatures agree to assign their electoral college votes to whoever wins the national popular vote, regardless of how their state went. If enough states sign on, it has the effect of circumventing the Electoral College and making sure the winner of the popular vote is the next president.

So far eleven states with 165 electoral votes have signed on to the plan, which will only be activated once 270 electoral votes-worth of states pass the compact. The campaign had been making steady progress in both red and blue states, with recent wins in the state legislatures of Oklahoma and Arizona, and real gains in Georgia, where 55 out of 61 state senators sponsored the bill.

But Trent England, an Electoral College defender at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, thinks the election results has stopped the reformers in their tracks.

"I think their effort is basically done, at least for the foreseeable future," said England, who has testified against NPV in statehouses. "It was a tactical mistake for them to sell this to Republicans as a partisan way for them to win."

Image: Anti-Trump Protestors Continue To Demonstrate Across The Country
Protesters demonstrate against President-elect Donald Trump outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Nov. 13.Mark Makela / Getty Images

Both parties are hypocrites on the Electoral College, complaining about when they lose and defending it when they win.

"The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy," Trump tweeted moments after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election. After winning the election this year, he changed his tune: "The Electoral College is actually genius," Trump tweeted.

Defenders of the Electoral College say it forces political parties to broaden their message beyond regional strongholds and gives rural areas a check on the power of coastal urban centers, which might otherwise come to dominate politics.

Swing states change from year to year, they note, while the most populous ones do not. And the system forces candidates to compete in most politically balanced places, which encourages persuasion and provides partisan checks on the integrity of the voting system.

"When candidates have failed to get an Electoral College win, even if they win the popular vote, they’ve not done a good job of reaching out to lots of different people," said Tara Ross, the author of the book "Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College" and a frequent opponent of popular vote activists in statehouse hearing rooms.

This year, for instance, much Clinton’s popular vote lead came from California, a liberal state where Republicans were barely even on the ballot thanks to its so-called "jungle primary" system that allowed two Democrats to run against each other in the general election.

"NPV has in the past has been able to tell people in red flyover states, it's going to help you," Ross said. "Now, a lot of voters in red states are thinking oh wow, California and New York really could sway the election."