The U.S. appears to be getting less democratic. But there’s a fix.

7December 2021

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

There has always been a certain amount of moonshine built into the idea that the United States is a “democracy,” or even, as it is sometimes called, a “democratic republic.” The second term adds to the moonshine quotient, as illustrated by the fact that many dictatorships have decided to refer to themselves as “democratic republics,” or “people’s republics” when they were, in fact, dictatorships.

Ours is not a dictatorship, at least according to me, although one recent president seemed inclined in that direction.

But it is troubling, to put it mildly, that a nation that holds itself out as a defender, proponent and exemplar of democracy, has, five times out of 58 quadrennial presidential elections, seen the candidate who received the most popular votes lose the election to the candidate who received the votes of fewer Americans.

We know how it happens. It’s the relatively undemocratic element called the Electoral College system. The presidency goes not to the candidate who gets the most votes, but to the one who gets the most electoral votes. On those five occasions, the candidate who got the most popular votes did not secure a majority of the electoral votes.

In the most extreme case, in 1824, before the emergence of the two-party system, four candidates, all of whom claimed to be members of the “Democratic-Republican Party,” split the popular and electoral vote. Andrew Jackson of Tennessee finished first with 41 percent of the popular vote and 38 electoral votes, which put him ahead of John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts who received 31 percent of the popular vote and 32 percent of the electoral vote.

Since no one had won a majority of electoral votes, the race was decided by the U.S. House membership on a one-state, one-vote basis. On that basis, Quincy Adams crushed Jackson, receiving the support of 13 states, to just seven for Jackson, and four for William H. Crawford, the third place finisher in the electoral vote. (Although this system remains in the Constitution, no other presidential election has been thrown into the state delegations. But framers put it in there, probably believing it would happen often.)

Four other presidential elections have been won by the loser of the national popular vote by the mechanism of the electoral college — two of them in the 1870s and 1880s.

But the alarming — or at least concerning point that got me started writing — is that three of the cases occurred in the 19th century, none in the 20th century and then two more in the 21st century (and, bear in mind, there have been just five elections so far this century, producing two loser-winners).

The 2000 election, in which Republican nominee George W. Bush was elected over Democrat Al Gore even though Gore had received slightly more popular votes, was actually decided/not decided by the Supreme Court. That is to say that the Supreme Court ruled by 7-2 that the recount of the Florida vote had not been conducted in a constitutionally appropriate manner; it then voted — even now this is hard to believe — not that the most recent Florida recount of the popular vote had accurately given the state’s electoral votes to Bush, but that all the legal deadlines for another, less-flawed recount had passed. So the previous (unconstitutional and flawed) count would have to stand because it was too late to start another one.

Forgive me for getting lost in history. The main point I set out to make is that our system is not getting better — and is apparently getting worse.

If you believe that in a democracy, the candidate who gets the most votes should win, the United States got through the entire 20th century — 25 presidential elections — producing 25 outcomes in which the candidate who got the most votes won. And yet, in the 21st century, still just getting going, we have produced TWO loser-winners (Bush in 2000 and, of course, Donald Trump in 2016) out of the first FIVE presidential elections so far this century.

Two out of five.

The mechanics who run the campaigns don’t focus on winning the majority of the popular vote. They write off about 40 or so of the states (because they are not considered to be “in play”) and focus, to an unhealthy degree, on the “swing states” because that’s all that matters under our system.

Now, in the sixth election of the current century, with Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 (or the “steal” as Donald Trump would have it), we have managed to go two for six for the century so far, and that sixth instance is still in some bizarre level of endless dispute.

We can’t go back to the glorious 20th century, in which the popular vote winner won all 25 presidential elections. But how do we feel about the prospects for the rest of the 21st century producing clean clear victories for our presidents-elect?

Me, I don’t feel good about it at all. Never in my life (and I recently turned 70) has U.S. democracy been hanging by a thinner thread. There are other problems with our democracy as big as the Electoral College. The current efforts in many states to make it harder to vote are despicable and obscene.

But there is a long-standing proposal that would address the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College system. I’ve written about it before (here’s my last one, from November of 2020). It’s called National Popular Vote, which, if adopted, would provide that the presidential ticket that received the most popular votes could take office.

It would require enough states to deliver a majority of the electoral votes to join an interstate compact pledging to award their electoral votes to the presidential ticket that gets the most votes nationally.

If adopted, I believe it would work, and would break the grip of the “only swing states matter” mentality over presidential elections.

Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia, which together control 195 electoral votes have joined the compact, meaning it needs states controlling 75 more electoral votes to take effect. Minnesota has not joined the compact, although a bill to do so has been introduced in all recent sessions of the Legislature and it passed the Minnesota House in the 2019 session. It has also been proposed as an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution.

This link will get you a summary of the history of the measure in Minnesota.

Progress of the National Popular Vote proposal has stalled in recent years. Years ago, it had a certain amount of bipartisan support, but Republicans have mostly turned against it. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that the most recent Electoral College victories by popular vote losers (and the only such victories in more than a century) were by Republicans, Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016.

The National Popular Vote website can be accessed via this link.

The Minnesota page on the website, showing the history of the proposal in Minnesota, is here.

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