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Pizza, Pop, Politics lecturer presents Electoral College alternatives

| Thursday, October 3, 2019

In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won the White House on the strength of his Electoral College triumph, though he lost the national popular vote to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Since then, the legitimacy of the Electoral College has been the subject of national debate. On Wednesday, ND Votes kicked off this year’s iteration of their Pizza, Pop and Politics lecture series with a presentation titled “Reforming the Electoral College: Silver Bullet or Dangerous Gamble?” Professor Joshua Kaplan, the political science department’s director of undergraduate studies, was invited to host the first lecture of the academic year and opened with a slide reading, “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

The opening slide was not meant to take a position on one side or another of the debate, but to present Kaplan’s argument that every reform of the Electoral College comes with its own consequences and problems.

“I don’t want to debate the pros and cons of the Electoral College or to make a recommendation, but this is going to be very important in the coming years,” Kaplan said. “It has gone from being a technicality in the way we elect a president to a contentious and partisan political argument.”

Kaplan prefaced his presentation by refuting the idea that Clinton would have certainly won the without the Electoral College. The College, in which every state gets a certain number of votes based on its total number of representatives in both houses of Congress, is now capped and does not adjust for population growth or loss, which leaves urban voters underrepresented by their electors. However, Kaplan pointed out that even with an accurately proportioned Electoral College, Trump still would have won the College. Trump also claimed on Twitter that had there been a popular vote, he would have campaigned differently.

Though he did not lean one way or another on the current debate, Kaplan did say he does not think the Electoral College would happen today if the United States rewrote Article 2.

“I think it’s safe to say that none of us would come up with Electoral College. Even the most ardent defenders probably wouldn’t recreate it if we had a chance to start fresh today,” he said. “‘We have an election, everybody votes and then 538 people will elect whoever they want.’ What a great idea.”

No system of voting is neutral, though, Kaplan said. During his hour-long talk, he presented four alternative options being considered by different states, along with each option’s possible benefits and detriments on the voting system in the U.S. The first two options — the automatic plan and the direct election plans — both require constitutional amendments.

“In the automatic plan, you keep electoral votes and eliminate the electors, which solves the problem of faithless electors,” Kaplan said, referring to electors who vote against the wishes of the people of their state. “There have only been 67 faithless electors in the history of the country, but 10 of those were in 2016, so it has the possibility to become a significant factor in the near future.”

On the other end of the spectrum is a simple direct election which eliminates electors altogether, where each vote is equally significant and whichever candidate gets a majority of the votes wins.

“The direct election plan would completely change the process,” he said. “It would promote third-party candidates, the nomination process would be different, campaign strategies would be different, party platforms would change their strategies. This would be most different from the way we do things now, and it’s the way most of the rest of the world works.”

Proponents of this plan, Kaplan said, were disillusioned by the results of the 2000 and 2016 election in which the candidate who won the popular vote lost the presidency. However, runoff situations could still make it so the most popular candidate may not win the final election.

The other two plans Kaplan presented — the proportional plan and the national popular vote — would not require a constitutional amendment and are being actively examined by different states throughout the country.

In the proportional plan, Kaplan said, the Electoral College vote would more closely reflect the outcome of the popular vote. The Congressional District proportional plan, in which each representative votes for the same candidate as its district and the two Senate votes are given as bonuses to the winner of the entire state, is currently being pushed for in states that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but have Republican majority state legislatures.

“Redistricting is done by the majority party in the state legislature, which can lead to attempts to maximize representatives from its own party, meaning that gerrymandering becomes a factor in electoral votes,” he said. “Under this plan, Nixon would have beaten Kennedy and Romney would have won in 2012, so it can obstruct the popular vote in its own way.”

The final alternative Kaplan presented, the national popular vote, is an interstate agreement that would go into effect if the states that have agreed to the system have a total of 270 electoral votes. As of now, 12 states — most of which lean Democratic — have signed the agreement.

“The idea is the states pass a law saying that we promise after the elections, all of our electors will support the winner of the national popular vote,” he said. “The problem is I wouldn’t want to be the person who has to explain to all of California why their votes went to Trump if he won the popular vote.”

ND Votes is a nonpartisan group connected with the Center for Social Concerns that “fosters conscientious engagement in political and civic life among students,” according to their website. Past lectures in their Pizza, Pop and Politics series have focused on issues ranging from immigration policies to the #MeToo movement to voter registration. The lectures are often hosted by University faculty and are open to the student body as well as interested members of the general public. Their next lecture will take place Nov. 8 and will address youth voter turnout — a topic that arose during the question and answer session of Kaplan’s lecture, since younger voters are the electorate group calling for changes in the election system.

“One of the issues with the Electoral College is that it lowers voter turnout because people believe their votes don’t matter,” Kaplan said. “You could say that there are a lot of young voters who could tend this way or that way, but if I’m running for president and I have to decide whether to go after young voters, they don’t vote. There’s kind of a chicken and egg situation there.”

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