Other Opinions About the U.S. Electoral College

A prior post discussed the July 6 Supreme Court decisions about the “faithless electors’ in the U.S. Electoral College for electing the president and vice president and initial reactions to those Supreme Court cases. Here are some additional reactions to those cases as well as other commentaries about the U.S.’ complicated system for election of a president and vice president.

Jesse Wegman[1]

Jesse Wegman, a member of the New York Times editorial board and the author of a book about the Electoral College, rightly says these recent cases did not address the issue of the continued existence of that institution, which, he says,” is rotting American democracy from the inside out.” First, it potentially can award “the presidency to the candidate who earns fewer votes among the people as a whole — which violates the fundamental premise of majority rule.” Second, it violates “the constitutional mandate of ‘one person, one vote.’ In the presidential election, the value of your vote depends on where you live. If you live in one of the half-dozen or so ‘battleground’ states, it matters hugely. If you happen to live in a ‘safe state,’ as a vast majority of Americans do, it’s effectively irrelevant.”

The Electoral College was created in the late 18th century Constitution because its “framers worried that most voters — who rarely ventured far from home and had no easy way of getting information quickly — couldn’t know enough about national candidates to make an informed decision.” However, Wegman says, the College has never worked that way with the immediate formation of national political parties.

As a result, Wegman argues, “there is no remaining rationale for the Electoral College. What remains is a system that serves no purpose other than to erase the votes of 100 million Americans every four years, making them bystanders to the most consequential election of all.” In short, amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College.

Wall Street Journal[2]

A Wall Street Journal editorial also points out that these new cases do not “address the most controversial question about the Electoral College, which is whether the U.S. should have one at all.”

The editorial, however, does not address that issue either. Instead, it discusses the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact whereby some states agree to grant their electors to the winner of the nationwide popular vote and which presumably is valid under the Opinion of the Court. However, says the Journal, Justice Thomas in his concurring opinion, points out that the Constitution in the last clause of Article I, Section 8, states, “No State shall, without the Consent of Congress . . . enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State.”

In any event, that compact currently has 16 members (15 states and the District of Columbia) with a total of 196 electoral votes and by its terms would go into effect when enough additional states join to constitute a majority of the Electoral College (270 votes).

Richard L. Hasen[3]

 Just before these Supreme Court decisions, Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine and the author of a leading book on problems of the U.S. election system, noted several problems with that system.

  • First, it “features deep fragmentation of governmental authority over elections. Not only does the United States use a highly decentralized and localized election system that gives many powers over national elections to state and local bodies, but also, even within the approximately 10,500 bodies expected to run the 2020 election, there is sometimes disagreement over who has decision making authority over voting rights decisions.”
  • Second, “protection of voting rights in the United States is marked by polarized and judicialized decision making.”
  • Third, U.S. “ constitutional protections for voting rights remain weak. The U.S. Constitution contains no affirmative right to vote. It speaks of voting rights mostly in the negative: thanks to a number of constitutional amendments, it is now illegal to bar someone from voting on the basis of race, gender, age of at least 18, or through the use of a poll tax.”
  • Fourth, this “decentralized, federalist approach to voting rights has led to a self-perpetuating system of voting inequality, where in some places you may be disenfranchised even if you do everything right.”

Therefore, Hasen proposes the following short-term remedies. “All states need to expand opportunities for online voter registration in time” for this November’s presidential election. . . . Congress needs to adequately fund additional expenses related to running an election during the pandemic. . . .  States need to form independent bipartisan task forces to conduct full and independent investigations into why areas with more poor voters and voters of color saw significant problems voting in person during the primaries.”

In addition, Hasen advocates for a new constitutional amendment that would “guarantee all adult citizens the right to vote in federal elections, establish a nonpartisan administrative body to run federal elections that would automatically register all eligible voters to vote, and impose basic standards of voting access and competency for state and local elections.

 Wilfred Codrington III [4]

Last year Codrington, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, pointed out a racist motivation for the creation of the Electoral College at the Constitutional Convention.

“The populations in the North and South were approximately equal, but roughly one-third of those living in the South were held in bondage. Because of its considerable, nonvoting slave population, that region would have less clout under a popular-vote system. The ultimate solution was an indirect method of choosing the president, one that could leverage the three-fifths compromise, the Faustian bargain they’d already made to determine how congressional seats would be apportioned. With about 93 percent of the country’s slaves toiling in just five southern states, that region was the undoubted beneficiary of the compromise, increasing the size of the South’s congressional delegation by 42 percent. When the time came to agree on a system for choosing the president, it was all too easy for the delegates to resort to the three-fifths compromise as the foundation.”

This racial impact affected the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, 73-65 in the Electoral College and “metaphorically rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves,” according to a Yale Law School professor, Akhil Reed Amar.

In the 1876 presidential election, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but not the Electoral College vote due to disputes about the status of some electors. An ad hoc commission ultimately awarded the disputed electors to Republican Rutherford Hayes with his agreeing to remove federal troops in the South that were intended to maintain order and protect black voters.

Max Boot[5]

Boot, an historian and Washington Post columnist, reports that he recently participated in a “war game” over a hypothetical narrow Biden victory in the Electoral College, 278-260, including narrow wins in three swing states—Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—where Republicans control both houses of their legislatures. Although all three states have Democratic governors, who usually certify election results, there is nothing to prevent the legislatures from certifying different results, especially if Trump “will stop at nothing to avoid the stigma of being branded a ‘loser’” and if hypothetically he and his allies concocted allegations of election fraud in those three states. The resulting dispute over these three states and hence the results of the election could well end up in the Supreme Court, and who could predict how they might resolve the dispute, given what it did in the 2000 election contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

A related concern is whether local, state and federal funding for the expenses of conducting the upcoming election in this pandemic will be adequate. This especially is true for the U.S. Postal Service with the anticipated mailing of election ballots.

David Rothkopf[6]

A lot of these current issues about the Electoral College are prompted by the outrageous conduct of our current president, Donald Trump, who is the “embodiment of the Founders’ worst fears.” So says David Rothkopf, a former professor of international affairs at Columbia University, Johns Hopkins and Georgetown University, former CEO and editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine and a senior official in the Clinton Administration.

Rothkopf continues, Trump “has invited our enemies to interfere with our elections to help him win, then sought to do it again. He has misused federal resources, inappropriately elevated his own family members, and enriched his own businesses. He has repeatedly attacked the First and the Fourteenth Amendments. He has had infants thrown in cages and denied relief to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria at the cost of thousands of lives. He has gutted environmental protections and attacked alliances that the US spent decades building and maintaining. And now he has mismanaged the worst public health crisis in a hundred years, overseen the greatest economic crisis since the Depression, and attempted to use the US military to crush legitimate protests on the streets of the capital.”

Moreover, “in the space of just a few days, . . . [Trump] was revealed to have endorsed concentration camps in China and to have again sought the assistance of a foreign adversary in winning a US election, was quoted as calling for the deaths and imprisonment of US journalists, defended the slave power traitors of the Confederacy, admitted that he suppressed testing during the pandemic because true data about the rate of infections would harm him politically, sought to fire more truthtellers in the administration and had his attorney general remove an official in charge of investigations into him and his supporters. He was reportedly briefed about a Russian scheme to place bounties on American and allied troops in Afghanistan, and not only did nothing about it but continued to act as an advocate for Putin. And so it goes on… before we even consider the many complaints about his character—his racism and misogyny, his ignorance and contempt for science and history, his lies, his narcissism, his vulgarity, his demagoguery. Has there ever been a public official in US history so unable to relate to others, show an emotion besides anger, or view the world through any means but his own self-interest?”

Conclusion

 Support a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College!

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[1] Wegman, Can We Please Pick the President by Popular Vote Now? N.Y. Times (July 6, 2020)

[2] Editorial, States and the Electoral College, W.S. J. (July 6, 2020); Kendall & Bravin, Supreme Court Rules States Can Prohibit Electors From Breaking Rank, W.S.J. (July 6, 2020); Astor & Stevens, Did the Popular Vote Just Get a Win at the Supreme Court? N.Y. Times (July 6, 2020); National Popular Vote, nationalpopularvote.com.

[3] Hasen, Bring on the 28th Amendment, N.Y. Times (June 29, 2020).  Since there are now 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, this article calls for a 28th amendment even though an existing non-profit organization has drafted and is promoting what it calls the 28th Amendment “to end the escalating influence of big money that dominates our elections . . . [by enabling} Americans to enact reasonable limits on campaign contributions and dark money political spending [and] reversing the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision.” (American Promise, The 28th Amendment.)

[4] Codrington, The Electoral College’s Racist Origins, The Atlantic  (Nov. 17, 2019); 1800 United States presidential election, Wikipedia.

[5] Boot, What if Trump loses but insists he won? Wash. Post (July 6, 2020); Reuters, ‘Epic failure’: U.S. Election Officials Warn of November Chaos Due to Budget Crunch, N.Y. Times (July 10, 2020); McCarthy & Jameel, The Postal Service Is Steadily Getting Worse—Can It Handle a National Mail-In Election?, propublica.org (June 15, 2020). See also Will Upcoming U.S. Presidential Election Be Legitimate? dwkcommentaries.com (July 5, 2020).

[6] Rothkropf, “The Most Ignorant and Unfit’: What Made America’s Worst Ever Leader? N.Y. Rev. Books (July 3, 2020).

 

 

Will Upcoming U.S. Presidential Election Be Legitimate? 

Any country that claims to be a democracy in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic should be taking steps to encourage maximum voter participation while protecting voters from risking their health. Such steps would include facilitating voter registration and maximizing the use of voting by mail. That seems self-evident. Yet it is not happening throughout the U.S., and, as is usual in our complex federal system, the rules governing this November’s U.S. election are complicated.[1]

Introduction

While every presidential election year brings an increase in voting rights litigation, the current pandemic has multiplied the number of lawsuits filed in the past 3½ months. Democrats and voting rights advocates are pursuing cases to make it easier to vote by mail, filing more than 60 lawsuits in 25 states.

These lawsuits “are now poised to shape the details of how roughly 130 million registered voters are able to cast ballots in upcoming contests.” However, “conflicting court decisions could exacerbate the differences in voters’ experiences at the ballot box in November. And as the fights play out, the uncertainty is further complicating election officials’ ability to prepare for the vote.”

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Dale Ho, who supervises its voting litigation, says, “I think it’s clear we have a potential disaster on our hands on Election Day if we can’t process as many votes as possible beforehand. The alarm bells are going off. It’s not just some sort of hypothetical as a problem — we’ve seen it as a problem multiple times. It will repeat in November. The question is how much and in how many places and how badly.”

A Democratic elections attorney, Marc Elias, agrees. “When the political branches fail to protect voting rights, it is left to the courts to do that. If the political branches were functioning the way they’re supposed to, you would have Republicans and Democrats agreeing to increase access to absentee voting. You’d be putting in place safeguards to make sure every eligible voter who casts a ballot has that ballot counted. . . . Unfortunately, the Republican Party is taking its cues from Donald Trump.”

Common Cause’s director of voting and elections, Sylvia Albert, said decisions about how to handle voting during a pandemic are not easy but “have to be made.” She added,“There is no waiting it out,” noting that as more time passes, the shorter the window for educating voters about any changes becomes. “As a state legislator, as a secretary of state, as a governor, you are responsible for ensuring that voters can access the ballot. By not moving ahead, they’re really abdicating their responsibility to the voters.”

President Trump’s Opposition to Mail Voting

The principal cause of the problem of this election is President Trump, who has made it clear that he is determined to curtail access to mail ballots, claiming without evidence that their use leads to widespread fraud. “My biggest risk is that we don’t win lawsuits,” the president said in June in an interview with Politico. “We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don’t win those lawsuits . . . I think it puts the election at risk.” As a result, the GOP is pushing to limit the expansion of voting by mail, backed by a $20 million Republican National Committee effort and help from conservative groups.

However, there is no evidence that mail voting leads to the kind of massive fraud Trump has described. A recent analysis by The Washington Post found that cases of potential fraud have been exceedingly rare in states that conduct voting exclusively by mail.

Nevertheless, with “Republican governors under pressure from President Trump not to expand voting by mail and many legislatures adjourned for the year or deadlocked along party lines, changes in the coming months are likely to come through court decisions.” As a result, this blogger fears that the Trump Administration will do anything and everything to try to steal this year’s presidential election.

Fortunately former Republican Governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld, has come out against Trump on this (and other) issues. He says,“absentee voting has been around since the Civil War and . . ., increasingly, states both red and blue are not just allowing but also encouraging citizens to vote by mail.”[2]

Indeed, Weld says, “Public support for voting-by-mail was in place long before the novel coronavirus came along. In the past week, Colorado and Utah conducted successful, smooth primary elections almost entirely by mail, with strong turnouts and no need for voters to stand in unhealthy lines. For a highly contested June 23 primary, Kentucky’s Democratic governor and Republican secretary of state worked together to make absentee voting less cumbersome. It worked, and turnout was at near-record levels. . . . The only problems Kentucky encountered resulted from the covid-19-driven consolidation of in-person, Election Day polling places.”

Weld also notes that public opinion polls show nearly 80 percent of voters support giving all voters the option of voting in person or voting absentee. That includes a majority of Republicans — the president’s paranoia notwithstanding.”[3]

Therefore, Weld concludes, “To my fellow Republicans, I plead with you to not follow Trump off this cliff. A political party that brands itself as the party of exclusion, disregard for citizens’ safety and thinly veiled vote suppression is not a party with a future.”

 State Developments on Mail Voting

Here is an attempted analysis of where at least some of the states stand on rules for the November 3, 2020 election.

Alabama. Because of the virus, Alabama officials are allowing any registered voter to cast an absentee ballot in the upcoming election without having to cite a valid reason. In  a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups citing coronavirus dangers, Birmingham-based U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon on June 15 struke down a requirement for absentee voters to submit a copy of a photo ID and to have their ballots signed off by two witnesses or a notary public as well as lifting a statewide ban on curbside voting at polling places. The judge said he would permit willing counties to allow drive-up voting, but he stopped short of requiring such an accommodation. This order was upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but on July 2, the U.S. Supreme Court, 5-4,  reversed that order for the July 14 primary runoff election for the U.S. Senate between Jeff Sesssions and Tommy Tuberville.[4]

California, Nebraska (counties < 10,000) and North Dakota provide counties the option to conduct all voting by mail. In addition, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (Dem.) ordered election officials to proactively send absentee ballots to all active registered voters in the state for the general election. This move drew fierce opposition from the right, including a lawsuit from the Republican National Committee, but the change subsequently was authorized by a new state law.[5]

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington authorize all voting by mail. “For these elections, all registered voters receive a ballot in the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope, and returns the package via mail or by dropping it off.”[6]

District of Columbia. It will send absentee ballots to all registered voters.

Georgia. The GOP Secretary of State mailed absentee ballot request forms to voters for the June 9 primaries. The Republican House Speaker, however, warned that expanded absentee voting could lead to fraud, and a state House committee approved a measure that would bar the mailing of absentee request forms for the fall, but the bill failed to pass before the legislature adjourned. The Georgia Secretary of State, however, already had said his office lacked funds to send ballot request applications for the general election, even though,

“By a wide margin, voters on both sides of the political spectrum agree that sending absentee applications to all active voters was the safest and best thing our office could do to protect our voters at the peak of COVID-19.”

Illinois and Michigan. This year these states will mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters.

Iowa. Gov. Kim Reynolds (Rep.) signed a bill into law that will require the secretary of state to seek legislative approval to send absentee ballot request forms to voters before November. This was seen as a rebuke to Iowa’s Republican Secretary of State, who mailed the forms to voters for the primary last month, resulting in a new turnout record for a June primary in the state.

Massachusetts. For the rest of this year this commonwealth has chosen to abandon its requirement for an excuse for an absentee ballot.

Missouri. As a result of an ACLU lawsuit, the Missouri Legislature adopted a statute expanding voting by mail during the pandemic, while retaining the statutory requirement for a notarization of the ballot with the legitimacy of that requirement still being litigated under a ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court.[7]

Pennsylvania. The Trump campaign recently sued to stop voters from using drop boxes to return completed absentee ballots and block ballots from being counted if they do not arrive inside the provided secrecy envelope. The Complaint alleged that mail voting “provides fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.” The Democratic Party obviously is opposing this lawsuit

Tennessee. Last month a Nashville judge ruled that any eligible voter who is concerned about contracting covid-19 at a polling place may cast an absentee ballot this fall, even though state law would typically require that voter to qualify using an excuse. The state Supreme Court declined last week to stay that decision after a request from Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett.

Texas. The Texas Democratic Party and several voters sued in federal court to allow all eligible Texas voters to vote by mail, at least during the coronavirus pandemic, on the ground that the state’s over-65 age limitation for such voting allegedly was unconstitutional, which contention was upheld by a trial court’s injunction, but reversed by the appellate court with the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26th rejecting an emergency appeal by the plaintiffs and remanding the case to the appellate court. (Justice Sotomayor urged the appellate court to consider the case “well in advance of the November election”).[8]

Wisconsin. On June 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled that after more than three years, Wisconsin must reinstate several Republican-backed voting restrictions, including limits on early voting. The original GOP policies were struck down in 2016 for discriminating against minority voters, a conclusion the appellate panel rejected this week.[9]

Guarding Legitimacy of this Year’s Presidential Election

Great concern over the integrity of this presidential election has been expressed by William A. Galston, the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, a former policy advisor to President Clinton and a Wall Street Journal columnist.  He said, “After a quarter-century of toxic division, our democracy is imperiled. A contested election could tip the U.S. into a devastating crisis of legitimacy, a prospect that every patriot must regard with dismay.”[10]

Therefore, Galston suggested four ways to minimize the risks in this upcoming election.

First, “To reduce pressure on the mail-in option, localities must provide the fullest possible opportunity to vote in person, as New York University law professor Richard A. Pildes has argued. This means increasing the number of polling places while expanding opportunities for early voting. Many elderly poll workers will be reluctant to do the job this year; large numbers of younger Americans should be recruited and trained to replace them. Schools should continue to serve as polling places, as they have for decades, and Election Day should be a school holiday.”

Second, “states should do what they can to facilitate the fastest possible count of mail-in ballots. Mr. Pildes recommends processing the mail-in ballots that arrive before Election Day so that they can be tallied in time for the results to be included in the count soon after the polls close, a procedure that California now employs. Other states—including Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania—would have to change their laws to permit this, and they should.”

Third, “As Nathaniel Persily, a co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project points out, the media have a crucial role to play as well. Reporters should educate themselves and the public about the all but certain delay in the vote count that the flood of mail-in ballots will entail. Above all, media organizations should resist the urge to call the election ahead of their competitors and instead wait until enough ballots have been tallied to know the result with confidence. In the past, ill-judged early calls of key states have sown confusion. This year, the consequences could be far worse.”

Fourth, “America’s elder statesmen must do all they can to ensure election integrity. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush should spearhead the formation of a bipartisan committee including respected figures such as former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, and former Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, along with lawyers and election experts from both parties who have served in previous presidential campaigns. Committee staff should be ready to investigate charges of fraud as soon as they arise and observe the counting of mail-in ballots if asked. Committee leaders should announce their findings as quickly as accuracy permits and stand united in their defense.”

Such a committee’s “most important tasks would be meetings soon after Labor Day with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. These leaders should be asked for a public pledge to stand together against unsubstantiated claims that the election has been stolen and to do their utmost to persuade elected officials in their respective parties to stand with them.”

Conclusion

In addition to all of the above litigation, the Supreme Court still has to resolve two cases about so-called “faithless” electors in the Electoral College that actually elects the President. Presumably decisions in those two cases will come down this coming week and will be discussed in a future post.[11]

Another future post will examine ways to create stronger voting rights from Richard L. Hasen, Professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine and the author of “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy.”

Comments to this post for corrections and supplementation for new developments are earnestly solicited.

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[1] See generally Viebeck, Voting rules changed quickly for the primaries. But the battle over how Americans will cast ballots in the fall is just heating up, Wash. Post (July 3, 2020).

[2] Weld, Please, Republicans don’t join Trump’s crusade against voting-by-mail, Wash. Post (July 3, 2020). See also Strauss, ‘We’ve got to do something’: Republican rebels come together to take on Trump, Guardian (July 2, 2020).

[3] See also Brennan Center for Justice, Americans of All Stripes Want a Mail Ballot Option.

[4] Liptak, Splitting 5-4, Supreme Court Grants Alabama’s Request to Restore Voting Restrictions, N.Y. Times (July 2, 2020); Gerstein, Supreme Court blocks judge’s order loosening Alabama voting requirements due to virus, Politico (July 2, 2020).

[5] National Conf. State Legislatures, All-Mail Elections (aka Vote-By-Mail).

[6] Ibid.

[7] ACLU, Press Release: Court Rules Lawsuit To Allow All Missourians to Vote By Mail Without a Notary During Covid-19 Can Proceed (June 23, 2020).

[8] Liptak, Supreme Court Turns down Request to Allow All Texans to Vote by Mail, N.Y.Times (June 26, 2020); Assoc. Press, Supreme Court doesn’t wade into mail-in voting battle, Wash. Post (June 26, 2020); Barnes, Supreme Court won’t force Texans to allow absentee ballots for all voters, Wash. Post (June 26, 2020).

[9] Earlier this year there was federal court litigation over the Wisconsin primary election that lead to counting of ballots that had been mailed no later than election day. (See these posts and comments to dwkcommentaries.com: Pandemic Journal (# 10): Wisconsin Primary Election (April 10, 2020); Comment: More Criticism of Republican Strategy of Limiting Voting (April 12, 2020; Comment: More Comments on Wisconsin Election (April 13, 2020); Comment: Surprising Results in Wisconsin Election (April 14, 2020); Commnet: George F. Will’s Opinion on Voting By Mail (VBM) (April 15, 2020); Comment: Emerging Battles Over Changing State Election Laws (April 15, 2020); Comment: New York Times Editorial on Wisconsin Election (April 20, 2020; Comment: Thousands of Wisconsin Absentee Ballots Counted After Election Day (May 3, 2020).

[10] Galston, How to Prevent an Electoral Crisis, W.S.J. (June 30, 2020).

[11] Liptak, Supreme Court Seems Ready to Curb ‘Faithless Electors,’ N.Y. Times (May 13, 2020); Wegman, The Electoral College Is a Confusing Mess, N.Y.Times (May 13, 2020).