Change How We Elect the President?

Readers offer alternative ways of determining electoral votes and a defense of the current Electoral College system.

Credit...Matt Rourke/Associated Press

To the Editor:

Re “Why Do We Have an Electoral College, Again?,” by Jesse Wegman (Editorial Observer, Jan. 26):

The problem with the Electoral College is not the faithless electors who vote for whomever they please, which is the focus of Mr. Wegman’s piece. Instead, it is that the plurality winner, except in two states (Maine and Nebraska), wins all a state’s electoral votes in presidential elections. If electoral votes were awarded to candidates in proportion to the popular votes they receive in a state, the victories of the Republican candidates in 2000 and 2016, both of whom lost the national popular vote, probably would have been reversed.

We do not need a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. A federal law that requires the proportional allocation of electoral votes — or laws that replace winner-take-all in all states — would almost always ensure that the electoral-vote winner would also be the popular-vote winner.

Steven J. Brams
New York
The writer is a professor of politics at New York University and author of “The Presidential Election Game” and “Mathematics and Democracy: Designing Better Voting and Fair-Division Procedures.”

To the Editor:

Jesse Wegman notes that “Americans would rightly revolt if a handful of people they’d never heard of ignored their votes and decided the election for themselves.” Because of winner-take-all awarding of Electoral College votes, the sad truth is that even without faithless electors, ballots cast by two-thirds of voters who live in reliably red or blue states don’t matter. Americans should revolt because elections are decided by the minority of voters living in battleground states.

Fortunately, the solution doesn’t require a revolt, just the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Once the threshold of 270 electoral votes among participating states is met, they will vote their electors for the candidate who receives the most votes in all 50 states, achieving the same outcome as a direct election.

According to Making Every Vote Count, over 70 percent of American voters favor guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate who wins the popular vote. To date, 15 states and the District of Columbia have joined the compact, together accounting for 196 of the 270 electoral votes needed.

Jonathan Perloe
Cos Cob, Conn.
The writer helped lead the effort to get Connecticut to join the Compact in 2018.

To the Editor:

We have an Electoral College to make sure that a few heavily populated states do not hold absolute sway over the many lesser populated states in the presidential election. Each state has its own interests to advance. The Electoral College system most fairly allows a majority of the states the opportunity to elect the president, so that their interests might be addressed. It seems disingenuous to leave out this fact.

Brian M. Magwood
Sonora, Calif.

To the Editor:

Democrats can bemoan the Electoral College all they wish. Nonetheless, 538 electors will ultimately pick the next president of the United States. Donald Trump is a dangerous threat to our country. Democrats have to win the fight in front of them, not complain about the rules.

Discussing the demerits of the Electoral College is pointless. Democrats must follow the football team owner Al Davis’s maxim: “Just win, baby.”

Alex Whitworth

Editors’ Note: We asked Jesse Wegman, the author of the Editorial Observer as well as a forthcoming book about the Electoral College, to respond to our letter writers:

Brian Magwood’s argument — that less-populated states benefit from the Electoral College, and that in a popular vote their interests would be drowned out by the more populous states — is one of the oldest defenses of the College; it’s also the opposite of reality. The interests of smaller states are ignored right now, under the existing system, as are the interests of bigger states and medium-sized states — all states, in fact, other than the handful of “battleground” states in which the popular-vote outcome is too close to call.

Every election year, the presidential candidates spend virtually all their time and money focused on those few states, and catering to their interests. In other words, roughly 80 percent of American voters, living in every size of state, are ignored at the expense of the 20 percent who live in battleground states.

The reason candidates focus almost exclusively on these states is the winner-take-all rule, which Steven Brams rightly identifies as the Electoral College’s biggest distortion. Mr. Brams’s proposal to instead allocate electors proportionally — an idea that has been floating around for decades — sounds appealing, but it has serious problems.

First, it would still not guarantee victory to the popular-vote winner, thus failing to eliminate what most people consider to be the Electoral College’s fundamental flaw.

Second, it would exacerbate the existing distortions of the winner-take-all system. Why? Because states would be forced to round off their popular-vote results to the nearest electoral vote, which would lead to hugely distorted outcomes, especially in smaller states. The fix would be to allocate electoral votes in fractions. This would get us much closer to a popular vote than we currently are, but because it would require getting rid of electors — who are human beings and can’t be divided into fractions — it would require a constitutional amendment. (In fact, an amendment doing just this passed the Senate by a supermajority in 1950, but failed in the House.)

A better approach, requiring no amendment, is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. As Jonathan Perloe explains, the compact, which has been slowly gathering member states since 2007, is a clever and elegant way to use the Constitution’s own language to achieve a popular vote. While the compact still has a ways to go before it takes effect, and will certainly face legal challenges if it does, it is currently the most plausible path to electing the president directly.

Last, Alex Whitworth argues that it’s “pointless” to complain about the Electoral College because everyone knows that’s how the game is played. Of course both parties must win under the existing rules; that does not mean we can’t also work to make the election of the president fairer and more equal to all Americans.