SOUTHERN INDIANA — It's no surprise that sandwiched between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections is a revived debate over a fundamental American institution: the Electoral College.
Democrat and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is just the latest presidential candidate to feel the blow of what some people call an unfair election system. Why? Clinton garnered nearly 2.9 million more votes than her opponent, but lost in the tally of electoral votes. So with 306 electoral votes over Clinton's 232, Donald J. Trump became President of the United States.
To Joe Wert, a professor of political science at Indiana University Southeast, it's clear that Clinton's defeat (along with then-Vice President Al Gore's defeat in the same fashion in 2000) has a lot to do with recent calls to abolish the Electoral College in favor of a national popular vote.
"Typically, if everything is going fine, there’s not a whole lot of call for reform, but it’s when things go awry that people start calling for steps to be taken," Wert said by phone.
Since the 2016 election, four more states have adopted legislation devoting their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote across all 50 states. A total of 15 states representing 189 electoral votes have adopted such legislation and are considered a part of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. But since it takes 270 electoral votes to win, the compact only goes into effect when there are enough states on board to reach that number.
The News and Tribune recently asked readers in a web poll whether they thought Indiana should join the compact. Out of 347 votes cast between April 6 and April 12, more than 58 percent, or 204 voters, chose "No, this is a left-wing, post Hillary Clinton move by Democrats. Keep the election process as-is."
"... Indiana and a lot of other states wouldn't have a a [sic] say. It would all be decided by the biggest states. Our vote would not even count," Facebook user Bonnie Carter wrote in response to the poll.
Dana Crawley wrote that the Electoral College "promotes fairness from a regional perspective. Individual votes count, but in a way that is represented by states. This prevents 2-3 very large states from overwhelming the popular vote count so that a greater portion of the country can be represented by the government."
Other commenters said "no," Indiana should not enter the national popular vote compact, but that their reasoning had nothing to do with calling out sore losers of the 2016 election.
Just over 20 percent, or 72 web poll takers, chose the option indicating Indiana should enter the national popular vote compact. The remaining 20.5 percent, or 71 voters, said the Electoral College should be abolished all together.
"...It’s time to do away with the Electoral College. When you have the most votes, you should be the Winner!" Clara Matthews wrote. Another commenter, Hope de Waardt-Jemerson, wrote, "The Electoral College is obsolete. Every vote should count."
THE MIDDLE GROUND
Wert, the IUS professor, said concerns from both sides are valid. A popular vote system would mean concentrated voting power in the most populous states, and maybe even in the most populous cities.
"I think what you might see (if presidents were chosen by a national popular vote) is that presidential candidates are going to focus more on large population areas, large cities in these largest states," Wert said, adding that rural voters would likely be ignored.
The strongest case for the Electoral College, Wert said, is that presidential candidates tend to be concerned with a "broader swath" of voters. But there are still concerns over a small number of states ("battleground states") getting a larger say. Each state is allocated a number of electoral votes based on its number of Congressional delegates. The largest 11 states could in theory cast a combined 270 electoral votes for one candidate, thus deciding the election for the rest of the country, Wert said.
But there's another option that neither abolishes the Electoral College nor requires a compact. Facebook user Matt Duncan wrote, "...Indiana should award its electoral votes to the winner of each congressional district and just 2 electoral votes to the winner at large, as Maine and Nebraska currently do." That means a state could be traditionally red or blue but still allocate votes for the other party based on the congressional district.
"We need to make it worthwhile for presidential candidates to campaign in both red and blue states," Duncan said in another comment.
Wert said he's heard the congressional district idea bandied about, but he isn't sure there's much momentum moving in that direction. It could be a happier middle ground, and it would be a way to amend to electoral practice without having to amend the Constitution.
A FIGHT AS OLD AS TIME
There have been roughly 700 efforts to abolish the Electoral College, according to a column by New York Time editorial board member Jesse Wegman. Wegman is the author of the upcoming book, "Let the People Pick the President."
Wert said the closest successful attempt to abolish the Electoral College was spearheaded by Indiana's own U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh. The longtime Hoosier senator, who died March 14, successfully amended the Constitution not once, but twice with the 25th and 26th amendments. The founding document has only been amended 27 times in its history.
But Bayh's fight to abolish the Electoral College in favor of a national popular vote fell short. After getting overwhelming support from the House and then-President Richard Nixon, the amendment died by filibuster in the Senate. Had the amendment passed the Senate, three-fourths of state legislatures would have had to ratify it.
Whether another legislator could ever get that close again, let alone succeed, is questionable.
"To be honest, I think if it was going to happen, it would have happened already," Wert said. "If it didn’t happen in 2000 and it didn't happen in 2016... it's fairly doubtful."
Wert can't say if the more recent push to skirt the Electoral College by way of the interstate compact has any real teeth. The compact's website says such bills have passed one legislative chamber in nine states accounting for 82 electoral votes. If those states pass and adopt national popular vote legislation, it would bring the compact's electoral vote count to 271— one more than needed to possibly swing an election.