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The Electoral College Is At The Heart Of Debate Over Vote Counting Laws


The Electoral College, that unique American institution that chooses the president on a state-by-state basis, doesn't get a whole lot of attention; that is unless its winner loses the popular vote. That nearly happened again last year, and it's at the heart of the debate over Republican state laws about vote counting. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It's hard to make the intellectual argument in favor of the Electoral College. Most people feel the person who gets the most votes should become the president. After all, that's how we run every other election in this country, says Jesse Wegman, the author of "Let The People Pick The President."

JESSE WEGMAN: You know, if anything, representative democracy in the 21st century is about political equality. It's about one person, one vote, everybody's vote counting equally. You're not going to convince a majority of Americans that that's not how you should do it.

LIASSON: Another way the Electoral College is unfair, says Harvard political scientist Gautam Mukunda, is that each state gets electors based on their representation in the House and Senate, which means small states get extra votes.

GAUTAM MUKUNDA: The fact that in presidential elections, people in Wyoming have roughly four times the power of people in California is antithetical at the most basic level to what we say we stand for as a democracy.

LIASSON: But conservative Republican Brad Smith, who used to be on the Federal Election Commission, disagrees. Sure, the election may be decided by just a few states, the so-called battleground states because they can swing red or blue. But Smith says the battleground is diverse.

BRAD SMITH: Some of the states with the heaviest minority populations in the United States, some of the states with the fewest minority populations in the United States - they include states from every region of the country. And that forces candidates to try to go out and have a platform that will appeal to the huge, diverse sections of America or at least not grossly turn them off.

LIASSON: And, Smith points out, for the majority of American history, the Electoral College amplified the popular vote rather than contradicting it.

SMITH: Our calculus might change if pretty much every single election, the person who won the most popular votes wasn't winning.

LIASSON: The problem is that twice in the last 20 years, the person with the most votes didn't win. Both times it was the Republican candidate who got fewer votes but ended up in the White House. And even when that doesn't happen, says Wegman, there's another problem with the Electoral College system.

WEGMAN: In 2020, despite the 7 million-vote victory that Joe Biden won in the popular vote, people overlook the fact that 45,000 votes switch in three key battleground states, and you're looking at a second term of Donald Trump. I mean, the fact that you could have the entire outcome of the election ride on 45,000 votes in three random states is, you know, just a huge glaring vulnerability for any republic.

LIASSON: That vulnerability was on full display on January 6, when Donald Trump and the violent insurrectionists pressed Congress to overturn Joe Biden's Electoral College win. Without the Electoral College, it would have been much harder for them to ask Congress to overturn the will of 7 million voters - Joe Biden's popular vote margin. Instead, Trump asked Congress to throw out the electoral votes from just a handful of battleground states. And that means the Electoral College puts a magnifying glass on just a few states that could have tremendous control over presidential elections.

WENDY WEISER: The Electoral College does mean that a small number of states have undue weight in the outcome of our elections and that smaller manipulations can have broad national consequences.

LIASSON: Wendy Weiser is the vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center at NYU, which advocates for expanded ballot access. What she means by manipulations are efforts by Republicans to change election laws in their favor.

WEISER: Vote suppression is one way of doing that - subtracting voters from the electorate who you think won't vote for your preferred candidates. But this new trend of actually taking over the machinery of elections and giving themselves the power to run things or make decisions or count the votes is another way of doing this.

LIASSON: Republican legislatures in places like Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Texas have advanced bills giving new powers to legislatures to fire election officials and overturn election results. Democrats don't have the votes in the states or in Congress to stop these laws, so Democrats, including President Biden, are trying to build public pressure against them.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The truly unprecedented assault on our democracy - an effort to replace nonpartisan election administrators and to intimidate those charged with tallying and reporting the election results.

LIASSON: Republicans say their goal is to fight future election fraud. The 2020 election was declared the most secure ever, but Donald Trump continues to push the lie that the election was stolen from him. On the other hand, Republicans don't have to convince the public. They have the votes to pass ballot restrictions. In some cases, they never even held public hearings - Gautam Mukunda.

MUKUNDA: This is the essence of the minority rule position, right? You don't have to convince the public that the system is fair. You just have to convince them that it's not so unfair they should overthrow the system.

LIASSON: And for Republicans, the system, with all its minoritarian features - the Electoral College, the U.S. Senate, the filibuster, partisan gerrymandering - is, at least for now, working in their favor. But maybe it's not good for democracy when one party doesn't have to try to win the most votes in a presidential election. Conservative Brad Smith says this is something Republicans should consider.

SMITH: They keep losing the aggregated popular vote. Republicans aren't getting enough votes, and that's why they're losing most presidential elections. And, you know, they need to think about, how do we appeal to more people?

LIASSON: In the run up to the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, 12 House Republicans issued an extraordinary statement - extraordinary because of the simple truth it stated that, quote, "Republican presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once in the last 32 years." The signers went on to implore their colleagues not to vote to reject the electors from battleground states, as President Trump was asking them to do. Michigan Congressman Peter Meijer was one of the Republicans who signed the letter.

PETER MEIJER: Even looking at it from a narrow partisan lens, this process or that objection was potentially imperiling the Electoral College.

LIASSON: And that would be a bad thing for Republicans because they depend on the Electoral College. As the letter states, quote, "we would be delegitimizing the very system that led Donald Trump to victory in 2016 and that could provide our only path to victory in 2024."

CHANG: OK. And Mara is still with us. Mara, I got to say that is quite an admission from the Republicans who signed the letter there, saying that they do rely on the Electoral College not the popular vote to win the White House. I mean, what does all that mean going forward?

LIASSON: Well, going forward, the question is, what happens in 2024 if Republicans control the House, which they very well might? Will Republicans accept slates of electors that favor a Democratic presidential candidate? If they do what two-thirds of them tried to do on January 6 and overturn the Electoral College results, that would certainly undermine people's faith not just in the Electoral College but in democracy itself.

CHANG: Yeah. And we should remember that the Electoral College was a concession to small states and slave states when it was founded. I'm just curious. What are the efforts to reform the Electoral College now?

LIASSON: It would take a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College, so that's not going to happen. But there is something called the National Popular Vote Compact. It's been passed in about 15 states plus the District of Columbia. And it's a law that says the electors in those states have to cast their votes for the winner of the national popular vote. If enough states passed it that equaled 270 electoral votes, then the Electoral College would be, in effect, neutered.

There is another idea for states to award their electors proportionally. In other words, the percentage of electoral votes you get from each state would be the same as the percentage of popular votes you get. Now, that has some practical problems because electors are individual human beings that can't be cut into fractions.

CHANG: That is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The broadcast version of this report included a misspoken quote that said people in Wyoming have 44 times the power of people in California in presidential elections. In fact, people in Wyoming have nearly four times the power of people in California. The reference has been corrected in the story available online]

(SOUNDBITE OF WIDOWSPEAK SONG, "NARROWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.