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Can the Electoral College system be changed?

As the 2020 presidential campaigns get underway, the debate over the Electoral College system is starting again. In 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost the election despite winning the popular vote, there were new calls to abolish the electoral college. NPR reporter Miles Parks joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss whether the constitutionally mandated system can be changed.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    With more than a dozen Democrats now in the race for the 2020 presidential nomination, talk is again turning to the final deciders — the members of the Electoral College. After Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the electoral college vote to Donald Trump, there were new calls to abolish the constitutionally mandated system. I recently spoke with NPR reporter Miles Parks who joined us from Washington D.C. to talk about the electoral college and whether it could be changed.

  • Miles Parks:

    Well there's really two ways that if you were going to get rid of the electoral college system that you would do it. The first would be changing the constitution, which as we know, it is very very difficult to do. You would need two-thirds of the House of Representatives, two-thirds of the Senate, and then three-quarters of states to agree to such a change. That kind of system or that kind of support I should say just isn't there for very many issues.

    The other way would be at the state by state level, which is something a few states have signed onto this pact to basically say we're going to give our electoral college votes to whoever wins the national popular vote, no matter if that person won the actual election in our state. If enough states that agreed to such a pact that it got up to that 270 electoral college vote number, then you could theoretically have the result of a national popular vote election but keep the Electoral College system intact.

    At this point we're not anywhere near that 270 vote number. Enough states have signed on to equal about 180 electoral college votes at this point.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What is the current system force candidates to do. Because right now it seems that they really only care about a very small handful of battleground states. We kind of know where California is going to go, we're going to we know are North Dakota's going to go. They don't bother campaigning there.

  • Miles Parks:

    Right. And that is really one of the biggest arguments for people who are in favor of the electoral college system, is that it keeps kind of middle America and smaller population areas in play. Candidates have to go to places like Raleigh, North Carolina, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Whereas proponents of keeping the Electoral College system say if you went to a national vote system, candidates would only be in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York. People who are in favor of the national vote system though, say basically yes, this is where the people are candidates should care about the most people, they shouldn't be campaigning in places that are important for some abstract map as opposed to the entire country.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The winner take all systems versus what kind of the framers had put it in mind. I mean, this wasn't designed to turn out this way but our democracy and our population and our political parties affiliations, they've ebbed and flowed, they've changed over time. The sort of the stopgaps have worked in very different ways?

  • Miles Parks:

    Right. At this point, we've gotten to a point where the Electoral College system, put very simply, values the votes of some people more than others. It values the votes of people who live in sparsely populated rural areas over the people who live in cities and urban areas. This gets into a even bigger problem when you look at the demographics of these areas. At this point non-white voters live in cities disproportionately more often than in rural areas. So the Electoral College favors white voters and people who live in rural areas over the votes of these other populations.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Does this just come down to a Democrats will support something like a repeal or replace of the electoral college versus Republicans will not want to because this is the system that got them into power and this is the system that's keeping the other team out of power?

  • Miles Parks:

    In 2019 it sure looks that way. President Trump, who used to be in favor of a national vote system, has now switched teams and is in favor of the Electoral College. He says that's because it would, the electoral college keeps the Midwest, keeps rural America in the top of kind of the political game plan. But the more cynical political scientists see this as a way for President Trump to have a road to victory in 2020 seeing he lost the popular vote in 2016.

    The really interesting thing about this debate is that we talk about it in these very concrete terms that Democrats are in favor at this point in the popular vote and Republicans are in favor of the Electoral College. But those things ebb and flow. You look at a state like Colorado that is very solidly blue right now. This is a state that voted red very, very consistently 20 years ago. So these things really do ebb and flow and you could see a world where in 10 or 15 years it's Democrats who are in favor of the Electoral College. If even just one state, say California, suddenly turned red in 20 or 30 years, you can't really see that happening but if it were to happen, it would change the way this debate looked for both political parties.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Miles Parks from NPR. Thanks so much joining us.

  • Miles Parks:

    Thank you Hari.

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