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Let the People Pick the President – BPR Interviews: Jesse Wegman

Image Credit: Bill Waldman

Jesse Wegman is a member of The New York Times editorial board, where he writes editorials on the Supreme Court and legal affairs. He previously worked as a senior editor at the Daily Beast and Newsweek, a legal editor at Reuters, and the managing editor of The New York Observer. He is the author of Let the People Pick the President, in which he outlines the case for abolishing the Electoral College in favor of a national popular vote. 

Sam Kolitch: When did you come to the conclusion that the Electoral College should be abolished? 

Jesse Wegman: After the 2000 election, I think most Americans realized just how screwy our system for electing the president is. No one in 2000 had been alive the last time the Electoral College had gone against the popular vote, which happened in 1888, so I was shocked that the candidate who won more votes could lose the election. What happened in Florida, where hundreds of votes could decide the allocation of the state’s electors, was unfair. George Bush got all twenty-five of Florida’s electors at the time while Al Gore got none, despite each candidate receiving nearly three million votes. From that moment on, I knew that this system was so fundamentally unrepresentative of the people. 

In 2016, it was also upsetting when the Electoral College once again went against the popular vote. In some sense, Donald Trump was the Framers’ worst nightmare because they had instituted the Electoral College to prevent someone like him from winning the presidency. He was a fundamentally unfit person who had no interest in governing or being a leader for the entire country. He didn’t care about “blue states” because he was never going to win them and he also ignored all the Republicans who lived in these blue states because of the states’ winner-take-all electoral rules. That’s what is so harmful about the Electoral College. 

SK: What are “winner-take-all” rules? 

JW: The Constitution grants states total authority as to how to decide to award their electoral votes to the candidates. All but two states, Maine and Nebraska, have chosen to award their electors by winner-take-all rules, which means that states give all their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in their states. While winner-take-all rules are not in the Constitution, the Constitution grants states the power to independently choose the manner in which they award electors. 

SK: What is so harmful about that? 

JW: Winner-take-all rules are distorting because they erase all of the people in a state who didn’t vote for the person that wins the popular vote in their state. For example, there are fifty-five electoral votes in California and nearly six million people voted for Trump—which is more than most states’ populations. But all of those votes are treated as invisible because California will cast all fifty-five of its electoral votes for Joe Biden. So winner-take-all rules are detrimental in that they create this false dichotomy between red and blue states. 

SK: Do you think the way we portray presidential elections in the form of political maps contributes to that false dichotomy? For me, at least, it felt as if all I was staring at during the week of the election was a binary map of red and blue. 

JW: It messes with your mind, right? When you look at a map that has no correction for population and that illustrates winner-take-all rules, you have these red and blue blocks in the shape of states that give you a very inaccurate and distorted image of what American politics are really like. California is “blue,” which makes it look like only Democrats live in California. California has forty million residents and a lot of them are Republicans. It’s the same phenomenon for Democrats in Texas, Republicans in New Jersey, and Democrats in South Carolina. The binary red and blue maps might suggest that most people live in the heartland, which is not the case. The country is a giant mess of Republicans and Democrats living everywhere. These types of maps are a clear illustrator of the harms caused by the Electoral College. 

SK: You write in your book that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson explicitly disliked the Electoral College. You even detail a letter Jefferson wrote in which he says the Constitution should be amended in order to abolish it. So why was the Electoral College included in the Constitution in the first place if the most famous and revered Framers clearly thought it was a bad, even antidemocratic, idea? 

JW: For one, it was a compromise. Some groups threatened to walk out of the convention if they didn’t get their way. Also, it was a hot and complicated summer and the Framers were fatigued and rushing to finish the document they had been working on for months. 

The Framers debated how to choose the president on twenty-one different days over the course of the summer. They held more than thirty votes on the question. Some Framers wanted Congress to choose the president. This was strongly opposed by many of the top Framers because of the concern the president would basically be a puppet of Congress. There were several top Framers at the convention who actually supported a popular vote for president. This idea lost out because they never won a majority of support for it. 

It wasn’t until the final days in early September of 1787 that a few delegates got together in a side room and basically cobbled together the system that we know today as the Electoral College. I don’t think they thought very deeply about it because they knew that George Washington was going to be the President no matter what system they adopted, so the stakes were not that high to them. 

SK: There had to be some specific reason in favor of the Electoral College at the Convention, though, right? 

JW: Yes, the Framers thought that having an intermediary body of electors, a smaller number of people than the actual number of eligible voters, would account for the realities of the time. There was no public transportation or interstate highway network. There were no national media conglomerates. People didn’t know much about the candidates beyond their local areas. So some of the Framers were concerned that a lack of knowledge would make it harder for voters to make a smart decision about who should lead the country. Having a body of men—only white, property-owning men, of course—who knew more about the national candidates would help obviate this problem. 

SK: You mentioned earlier that the Electoral College was a compromise. Were you alluding to the issue of slavery? 

JW: The protection of the interests of slaveholding states is at the heart of every major compromise that was struck at the Convention. James Madison himself, the “Father of the Constitution,” was very explicit about this on the floor of the convention hall in the middle of the summer. He said that a direct popular vote for president would be the best way to elect him since it would produce the fittest leader. But the Southern, slave-owning states did not support a popular vote, “On the score of the Negroes.” 

In the end, I think it was clear to the Framers that a national popular vote was never going to work, so they adopted the Electoral College in part to protect the interest of slave states. And the reason that the Electoral College protects those interests is because of the three-fifths clause. 

SK: How so? 

JW: The three-fifths clause gave slave states disproportionately more power in Congress because their non-voting slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person. This power was transported into the system of choosing the president since the Electoral College is based on representation in Congress. 

Madison understood, which meant that every Framer understood, that the slave states would not go for a national popular vote because of their slaves. When you don’t let half of your population vote, you’re going to have less influence in the election. It is indisputable that the Electoral College benefited slave states’ interests for the first eighty years of the country, a period in which slave-holding states produced more presidents, more Supreme Court justices, and more speakers of the House than non slave-holding states. This is what is referred to as the “Slave Power,” and it is this power that shaped the development of the country, including the Electoral College. 

SK: One of the main points of your book is that if we look at the history of America, we can see that we have become increasingly inclusive when it comes to who can participate in our democracy. You write that the Reconstruction Amendments, the 19th Amendment, and the 26th Amendment are all examples of this progression. So why hasn’t the Electoral College already been abolished, if it really is a part of that trajectory? 

JW: The reasons why the Electoral College still survives 230 years past its creation are many and complicated. First off, the most obvious insult of the college is that it can put the popular vote loser in the White House. But this has happened only twice in the lives of anyone alive today. The three other times happened before the 20th century. When it doesn’t happen often, people tend to not worry about it. A lot of people think that we have this weird, antiquated system for choosing our president. “It’s cute. The people go to their state capitals and they cast their special electoral ballots.” But one of the biggest points in my book is that the Electoral college harms the nation even in the situation that the Electoral college winner is also the popular vote winner. And the reason why is because of the winner-take-all rules, which create a hierarchy of states. 

SK: How does the Electoral College, specifically, create that hierarchy? 

JW: Most states are “safe states,” meaning that candidates know they are going to either win or lose them. Presidents themselves don’t care about them because there is nothing they can do to change the outcome of the vote in that state. “Battleground states,” which are just arbitrary states that happen to have evenly-divided politics, are the only states that matter. This creates a distortion in a representative government since presidents are supposed to represent all Americans, but they end up focusing on a small sliver of the country that is needed to win the election. This makes sense to candidates from an electoral perspective, since they are doing what they need to do to win, but it is crazy for a representative democracy to say that most people’s concerns don’t matter. 

SK: A major portion of your book is dedicated to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which circumvents the Constitution to implement a national popular vote. How does it work? 

JW: The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is based on the fact that states can award their electors to whomever they like. The way the compact works is that it’s a contract among the states in which states join it and agree to award all of their electors to the winner of the most votes in the entire country, not to the winner of the most votes in their state. Once states representing 270 or more electoral votes join this compact, it automatically takes effect and awards 270 or more electors to the candidate who wins the popular vote in the country, thereby implementing a national popular vote and eliminating winner-take-all rules. 

SK: What do you see as the biggest challenge to the compact? 

JW: Every state that has joined the compact so far has Democratic leadership. No Republican state has passed the compact, which is for an obvious reason: they want to protect the system that helps them now. This is the story of politics from the beginning of time. People want to preserve the systems that work to their benefit and they want to reform the system that hurts them. 

Democrats have been burned twice by the Electoral College in the last 20 years. Republicans have benefited from it twice. So on the surface, it looks like a partisan issue. But take, for instance, a place like Texas, where Republicans count on 38 electoral votes every four years. That’s more than ten percent of the electoral votes you need to become president. If Texas turns Democratic in the near future, which the trends suggest it will, Republicans will have no Electoral College path to the White House. So the biggest challenge is getting both parties to understand how the Electoral College hurts them. 

SK: What do you say to people who believe that the Electoral College protects smaller and more rural states? 

JW: Half of the smallest states are Democratic. Half of the smallest states are Republican. They have never benefited under the Electoral College winner-take-all system we have today. And they recognize this, which is why they do not defend it. Small states, like Wyoming, which has three electoral votes, have no power. No candidates care about small states’ votes, so they basically disappear when they are campaigning in the general election. The big swing states are the only beneficiaries. 

SK: What is your response to someone who says that big cities, like New York or Los Angeles, would dominate a national popular vote? 

JW: New York is the biggest city in the country, with about eight million residents. But the country has 330 million people in it. New York alone couldn’t possibly sway the outcome of a national election. People just have a mathematical misunderstanding of how big our largest cities are. I also think that the arguments against cities having too much power has often had a racial tone to it. For a lot of people, cities tend to stand for Black and Brown people. 

One other point I would make is that, in a presidential election, it shouldn’t matter where you live. You’re electing the one office in the country that covers everybody equally. Yes, millions of people live in the cities. Millions of people live in the suburbs. Millions of people live in rural areas. All those votes should be counted equally in the election of the presidency. 

SK: On a separate note, you recently wrote an article in which you brand the GOP as the greatest threat to democracy. As a member of the media, is there a fine line that you have to tread when engaging in this type of criticism? Is there a way to discredit the GOP without unilaterally discrediting all of its supporters? 

JW: It depends on how you draw the line. My criticism in that piece was aimed directly at Republican leadership and not aimed at all of its supporters. However, polls show that more than seventy percent of Republican voters do not believe that Joe Biden is a legitimately elected president—which is just contrary to the facts. They’re behaving like flat-earthers. I don’t know what to say to them, other than they’re wrong. My responsibility as an opinion writer is to state the truth and be as clear-eyed and accurate as possible. If the truth is that one party is behaving like an authoritarian cult and the other party, for all of its many flaws, is fundamentally acting like a governing party in a representative democracy, I’m going to call it that way. And if it upsets people, well, look in the mirror. 

SK: When you read the news, do you get disheartened? If so, how do you find the optimism to advocate for the causes—like abolishing the Electoral College—you believe in? 

JW: When I look at the news of the day, I get very disheartened. When I look at the larger arc of American history, I feel much more hopeful. People have faced even more egregious inequities than those that exist today. You could imagine that people living in the era of slavery, either slaves themselves or those who saw the injustice of it, might’ve thought, “How will we ever break free of this?” And yet, we did eliminate slavery. We moved closer to our founding ideals of universal human equality. And every other major change in our democracy has been in that direction. 

So I do have hope that we can keep moving toward a more inclusive, more equal, and more fair democracy in which all people are treated the same. But I’m in no way naive about how dangerous this current moment is. There are so many structural obstacles that stand in the way of us achieving the level of equality and fairness that the founders put in the Constitution as our guiding lights. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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