Sabatos Crystal Ball

The Electoral College: It Doesn’t Always Lean Toward Republicans

Reform efforts face long odds, and such reforms might not necessarily help Democrats in the long run

Hunter Brown, Guest Columnist, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 10th, 2019

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— Proposals to abolish the Electoral College, whether through a constitutional amendment or through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, face an uphill climb.

— Historically, the Electoral College has not given the Republicans a consistent advantage in presidential elections, but one may develop in the near future.

The long odds of Electoral College reform

Throughout our nation’s history, the only constant has been change. Our founders foresaw that when they set up the amendment system, which we’ve used to end slavery, give women the right to vote, and both enact and repeal the prohibition of alcohol. Recently, several Democrats have called for a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with a popular vote system, or failing that, to pass the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). Both proposals face an incredibly uphill battle, and ending or going around the Electoral College might not necessarily benefit the Democrats in the long term. For despite the sting of losing two narrowly-decided presidential elections over the last two decades where Democrats won more votes than Republicans, it’s not clear that the Electoral College has systematically benefited Republicans over the past several decades.

The Electoral College dates back to our nation’s founding, resulting from a compromise between large states and small states. It grants each state a number of votes equal to the size of its congressional delegation. A state’s legislature then decides how to allocate said votes. Currently, all but two give all of their votes to their state’s popular vote winner. The remaining two, Maine and Nebraska, opted to give one to the winner of each congressional district and grant the remaining two to their state’s popular vote winner. In recent years, both states have had split outcomes: Barack Obama won NE-2 in 2008 while he was losing statewide in Nebraska, and Donald Trump won ME-2 in 2016 while losing Maine overall.

State-level methods of awarding electoral votes weren’t always so democratic. In fact, up until the Civil War, the South Carolina legislature simply appointed their electors. Nothing bars legislatures from doing the same today. This consideration will become important later when we discuss the NPVIC.

The Constitution sets a high bar to pass a constitutional amendment. First, an amendment must pass either two-thirds of both chambers of Congress or have two-thirds of state legislatures call for a constitutional convention, the latter of which has never happened. Then, three-fourths of the states (38) must ratify the amendment before it becomes a part of the Constitution. This option doesn’t seem very realistic. Whether the Electoral College actually benefits the Republicans systematically or not, clearly at the present moment, Democrats dislike the Electoral College much more than Republicans. Given that eliminating the Electoral College would almost certainly be a partisan exercise endorsed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans, it’s hard to see how such an effort could muster two-thirds majorities in either chamber of Congress. Additionally, there are at least 20 strongly Republican-leaning states, and it’s hard to imagine any of these states approving such a constitutional amendment. So an amendment to abolish the Electoral College would scarcely be able to gain more than 30 backers, much less the requisite 38. Hence, a more attractive option for popular vote supporters may be the NPVIC.

The plan, first conceived in 2001 by Professor Robert Bennett at Northwestern University, calls for a group of states that collectively command at least 270 electoral votes to all allocate their votes to the national popular vote winner. Because the state legislatures have the power to allocate electoral votes in whatever way they see fit, they do not have to follow the will of the people of their state, and hence can give their votes to the national popular vote winner. The compact, officially rolled out in 2006, would only go into effect once the requisite number of states have joined. It gained its first backer, Maryland, in 2007, and currently boasts a total of 196 votes. However, so far only Democratic-controlled states have passed it. Also, swing states that benefit from additional attention and outsized influence every four years may lack an incentive to pass the accord. In fact, Gov. Steve Sisolak (D-NV) vetoed legislation joining the pact earlier this year for that very reason. Only one swing state has passed the resolution to date: Colorado. However, state Republicans are pushing a ballot initiative to pull the state out of the compact, so even its inclusion is not secure. Thus, the NPVIC faces an uphill battle to passage.

Compounding its problems, the legality of the NPVIC is questionable, as it may violate the Compact Clause of the Constitution, which prevents states from entering into interstate compacts. The point of contention is whether the NPVIC legally counts as an interstate compact. There have been several conflicting legal arguments by both sides. Whether the NPVIC violates the Constitution is anybody’s guess and probably would be subject to the whims of whatever court would hear an inevitable lawsuit if the pact ever came into effect.

Furthermore, it is not clear that the Electoral College benefits Republicans consistently. To demonstrate this, I will endeavor to determine the advantage the Electoral College gave to candidates in each presidential election since 1972. I documented my findings in Table 1 below. First, for each year, the table includes the election winner, his electoral vote total, and the two-party popular vote margin against the opponent of the other major party. Then, I shifted all the states towards the national popular vote loser by this margin to see who would have won the election had the popular vote been 50-50. I also included this candidate’s electoral vote total under these circumstances. Finally, I calculated the national popular vote margin necessary for the Electoral College’s preferred candidate to lose along with the tipping point state, which I define as the state necessary for the underdog, the candidate disfavored by the Electoral College, to reach 270 electoral votes.

Note: For the sake of simplicity and to more easily demonstrate purely the effect of the Electoral College itself, I have ignored both faithless electors and the electoral vote allocation system used in Maine and Nebraska.

Table 1: Electoral College advantage, 1972-2016

Note: * is the margin or state necessary for the underdog candidate to cross the 270-vote threshold but without it, the vote would have been 269-269.

Source: Calculated by the author from results provided by Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

Since 1972, the Electoral College has favored each party six times, showing no long-term Republican bias. In fact, the Electoral College has benefited Democrats more than Republicans recently, with the Democrat favored in four of the last six match-ups. It just so happens that the two that benefited Republicans occurred in years when the overall election was close enough that the split made a difference in the outcome.

Over the last 12 elections, the average Republican earning 50% of the two-party popular vote would be expected to get 276.42 electoral votes, suggesting a pro-Republican bias (average number of Republican electoral votes minus the expected 269) of 7.42 electoral votes. When only considering the last six elections, said bias drops slightly to 5.33. Since the dawn of the modern two-party system in 1856, only two elections (1876 and 2000) have been decided by less than 10 electoral votes, showing this bias to be insignificant in the long run. The average national popular vote margin needed for a Republican to win over the last 12 elections is 0.12%. Averaging over the last six increases it slightly to 0.25%. Since 1856, only two elections (1880 and 1960) have had a national popular vote margin less than 0.25%, and only one (1880) less than 0.12%. Thus, one measure favors the Republicans and another favors the Democrats, both by an insignificant margin.

However, a consistent Republican bias may develop in the near future. The populous Democratic-leaning states of California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and Washington are becoming increasingly more Democratic, effectively wasting extra Democratic votes in already strongly Democratic-leaning states. By contrast, the populous Republican-leaning states of Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina are moving towards the center, shedding inefficiently-distributed Republican voters. Thus, the Electoral College may begin to favor the GOP consistently in the future, although it does not seem to do so currently, and future events and electoral alignments can (and potentially will) upend current political trends.

Fighting to overturn the Electoral College may excite Democrats, but any reform faces myriad obstacles, and it may not pay the dividends many in the party would hope for.

Hunter Brown is an intern at the Center for Politics who recently graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in mathematics. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree at UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. Contact him at hab3zb@virginia.edu.