Here’s why California, with our 55 electoral votes, is largely useless when it comes to picking the president of the United States.
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By Jessica A. Levinson and
Jessica Levinson is a professor at Loyola Law School and the director of the Public Service Institute at Loyola Law School, firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the host of the “Passing Judgment” podcast. @LevinsonJessica.
Michael A. Genovese, Special to CalMatters
Michael A. Genovese is a professor of political science and international relations at Loyola Marymount University, and president of Global Policy Institute at LMU, Mgenovese@lmu.edu.
Remember when we looked at national polls to try and determine the winner of the next presidential election? So do we.
In the 2000 election, when George W. Bush won the Electoral College but lost that national popular vote to then-Vice President Al Gore, many of us were lulled into the belief that the winner of the Electoral College would line up with the winner of the popular vote. We were wrong.
If 2000 was a national wakeup for the importance of the Electoral College, the 2016 election was a five-alarm fire for the nation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes but of course lost the Electoral College to Donald Trump.
National polls are largely useless, and guess what, so is California, at least when it comes to the Electoral College.
Yes that is right, California, with our 55 electoral votes, more votes than any other state in the nation, is largely useless when it comes to picking the next leader of the free world. In fact, about 42 of our 50 states can and likely should be taken for granted by presidential candidates.
If you see a presidential candidate in California, we can tell you exactly what s/he is doing – shaking the money tree. Current polls indicate that Joe Biden is more than 30 percentage points ahead of Trump in California.
It is bad enough to create a system in which the most populous state in the nation (yes, that’s us!) and the majority of other states should be ignored, but add to that the baked in advantage the Electoral College gives to one party. As uber-pollster Nate Silver pointed out, even if Biden wins the popular vote by as much as 2-3 percentage points, he still only has a 46% chance of winning the presidency. This is in part due to the fact that 48 states employ a winner-take-all approach; it makes no difference if a presidential candidate wins a state by 0.1 percentage points or 40 percentages points. This is absurd.
Simply put, it is time to abolish the Electoral College or for states to move to awarding electors on a proportional basis.
Before we tell you to abolish it, some quick background.
What is the Electoral College? It is the group of people, elected by each state, who actually elect the president and vice president of the United States. None of us vote to elect the president and vice president on the first Tuesday in November, instead, voters in each state elect a slate of electors, and those electors meet in December and elect the president and vice president.
In practice the Electoral College favors small states. Each state is allocated the same number of electors as they have federal representatives. So add up your members of Congress and your two U.S. Senators, and that is how many electors your state has. This means that voters in Wyoming have about three times more voting power to choose one elector than voters in California.
If there is one valid reason behind the Electoral College – it is the idea that it will save us from ourselves. But they never have, and increasingly cannot.
Allow us to explain. One rationale for having an Electoral College is that this group of wise statesmen would act as a safety valve and protect us, the voters, in case we pick an unqualified demagogue.
There are two problems with this. One, members of the Electoral College have never changed their votes to go against the will of the voters in their state in numbers sufficient to change an election. Two, the majority of states have loyalty laws that punish electors who go rogue and do not vote for the winner of the popular vote of the state they represent.
So if the Electoral College doesn’t serve any good public policy purpose, let’s review what it does. First, it vastly reduces the voting power of voters in larger states (yep, that is us again!), where there tend to be more diverse voters. Second, it creates a system in which presidential candidates can largely ignore more than 80% of the states and the voters in those states. Again, the Electoral College does not change at all if Biden wins California by half a percentage point or by 40 percentage points and so any Democratic candidate is wise to ignore it. Instead, if history is any indication, the vast majority of campaign advertising will likely be spent in only half a dozen states.
The Electoral College, a last-minute Constitutional compromise, has outlived any utility that it may have had. It is time to rid ourselves of this anti-democratic institution. But what should we have instead?
We propose two options, both imperfect, but both superior to our current system.
First, we should move to the national popular vote; the candidate who garners the most votes on Election Day will be the next president. This would radically change how presidential candidates campaign, and yes, would mean candidates spend more time in highly populated areas and less time in sparsely populated rural areas. Candidates would have to campaign where the voters are.
Second, we could keep the Electoral College but states could move to awarding votes on a proportional basis, instead of the winner-take-all approach currently used by all states except Maine and Nebraska. Unlike abolishing the Electoral College, this would not require a constitutional amendment. This would mean that voters, even in California and Alabama, matter and have a say in choosing the next leader of the free world.
Both of these options would revolutionize campaigning and voting for the better. This is no time to hold onto a system that creates perverse outcomes in presidential elections. This is no time for California to be ignored.
Jessica Levinson has also written about a ruling that members of the Electoral College must remain faithful, the good news and potential bad news of COVID-19, the governor may have erred in reopening California too soon, and Republicans versus the right to vote.