Below is my column today in USA Today. We are now just a month away from the presidential election and our continued inexplicable use of the Electoral College. I have previously discussed steps that we can take to reform our political system. However, the starting point should be the elimination of the electoral college and the requirement that our presidents be elected by a direct and majority vote. As with other leading countries, we should allow for a runoff to guarantee that every president enters office with the support of over half of the voters.
Vladimir Putin had one in Russia. This week, Hugo Chavez had one in Venezuela. Last spring, Nicholas Sarkozy lost one in France.
In each case, the outcome was decided by the majority of voters in their country. Such direct democracy is a foreign concept in the USA, where we require neither direct voting nor a majority to lead our nation. The reason is an arcane institution: the Electoral College.
In the U.S., presidents are not elected by the people but by 538 “electors” who award blocks of votes on a state-by-state basis. The result is that presidents can be — and have been — elected with fewer votes than their opponents. Indeed, various presidents have taken office with less than 50% of the vote. The question is whether a president should be elected by a majority of voters of at least one free country before he can call himself the leader of the free world.
The Electoral College is a relic of a time when the Framers believed that average people could not be trusted with selecting a president, at least not entirely. This was consistent with a general view of the dangers of direct voting systems. Until 1913, U.S. senators were elected not by their constituents but by the state legislators. When we finally got rid of that provision with the 17th Amendment, we failed to change its sister provision in Article II on the indirect election of presidents.
Notably, while James Madison agreed that direct election of the president would be superior, there was one primary obstacle to pursuing this option in the Constitutional Convention: slavery. Madison noted that the North-South divide presented an obstacle of a “serious nature” to direct democracy. He concluded that the use of electors that gave each state a set number of votes “seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.” Now slavery is gone, yet the Electoral College remains.
We have retained this dysfunctional institution even after the calamity of the 2000 election, in which a few “hanging chads” in Florida determined the outcome. Not only did the college effectively negate half of the votes in Florida by giving all the electoral votes to George W. Bush, but it also delivered the entire election to him despite his loss in the national popular vote. Direct elections lessen such controversies by counting the votes of all Americans equally and directly. Though such vote counting controversies could continue, the size of the nation usually guarantees that the popular vote is rarely in doubt. Even in that “close” election, Bush trailed by more than a half million votes.
The greatest irony of the Electoral College is that it does precisely the opposite of what the Framers intended: Rather than encouraging presidential candidates to take small states seriously, it results in turning most states into near total irrelevancies. With our two-party monopoly on power in the United States, candidates spend little time, if any, in states that are clearly going to go for the other party — or even for their own party. Thus, there is little reason for President Obama to go to Utah or for Mitt Romney to go to Vermont. The result is that elections are dominated by swing states while campaigns become dominated by the issues affecting those states.
Thus, while the majority of Americans support tougher immigration laws, both candidates this year are struggling to adopt new policies to capture swing states with large Latino populations. Whatever the merits of the immigration debate, the campaign looks as if it is for the United State of Florida as opposed to the country as a whole. The irony is palpable given the original desire of Madison to use the college to avoid the “mischiefs of faction.” He did not want presidents to be effectively captured by factional or insular interests. However, that is precisely what has occurred: The interests of the majority of country are subservient to the insular interests of key voting blocks in swing states.
The reason that the Electoral College is still with us is that it is a critical protection for the two-party monopoly on power in the USA. The Democrats and Republicans effectively keep presidential candidates of the opposing party out of their states — deterring the expenditure of time and money in organizing these states. Opposing candidates and parties face even greater obstacles because most voters view the result as irrelevant to the outcome of elections.
Ultimately, the Electoral College should be rescinded as a fundamentally undemocratic institution. John Quincy Adams was elected by just 32% of the popular vote. He is among the 15 presidents who have taken office with less than 50% of the vote:
Grover Cleveland (twice)
Woodrow Wilson (twice)
Bill Clinton (twice)
George W. Bush.
Some presidents like Bush were elected not only by less than a majority but also with fewer votes than his opponent. For the many Americans who are unhappy with this political system and want change, a key and obtainable reform is a constitutional amendment requiring the direct and majority election of presidents in either a general or, if necessary, a runoff election. A president represents all Americans, and he or she should be elected by the vote of citizens as Americans, as a whole.
It is time for the United States to embrace true democracy. It is time to kill the Electoral College.
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.