President Donald Trump’s cynical attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the Nov. 3 election includes one especially disgraceful strategy: trying to get Republican state legislatures to throw their electoral votes to Trump even if Biden won their states. Legal scholars say this will fail under the current circumstances, but the fact that it’s even a theoretical possibility is further cause to talk about finally rethinking the Electoral College.
The Electoral College gives each state a set number of electors who cast the actual votes for the president. It has been controversial at times, but its outcomes mirrored the public’s will in every election of the 20th century. The two modern elections in which the popular-vote loser won the electoral vote — George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016 — certainly felt unfair to supporters of the defeated, but there wasn’t any question those outcomes were legitimate under the American system.
The gambit Trump tried last week is a different matter. Having lost both the popular and electoral votes substantially, with no chance his phony claims of massive vote fraud will win in court, Trump set his sights instead on getting Republican-controlled legislatures in states where Biden won to ignore the popular vote and choose Trump electors.
This isn’t conjecture. Last week, two county election officials in Michigan briefly blocked certification of the vote there, hoping to throw the issue to the Republican legislature so it could choose Trump electors — even though Biden won the state by 157,000 votes. Trump legal adviser Jenna Ellis cheered this attempted electoral thievery as a “huge win” for Trump. Trump himself lauded the officials on Twitter and called one of them directly. He invited Michigan Republican lawmakers to White House for a meeting held Friday.
That this gambit will fail isn’t the point. The fact that all it took was few public officials devoid of any respect for democracy to potentially overrule an entire state’s vote should be added to the list of reasons to reform the Electoral College. That list already includes the unfair weight it gives to small-population states, and the winner-take-all method of electoral allocation that most states use, effectively discarding tens of millions of votes every election.
Getting rid of the Electoral College altogether would require a constitutional amendment, which would be an impossible lift in today’s fractured political environment. But there are other possibilities for reform. One effort already underway would forge agreement between state legislatures to always throw their electoral votes to the national popular-vote winner; another seeks to have the Supreme Court deem winner-take-all unconstitutional.
These and other ideas should be on the table. On this issue, as on so many others, an unfit president has inadvertently highlighted a weakness in America’s system that should be addressed.
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