from The New Yorker
In 1961, Estes Kefauver, the crusading Democratic senator from Tennessee, denounced the Electoral College as “a loaded pistol pointed at our system of government.” Its continued existence, he said, as he opened hearings on election reform, created “a game of Russian roulette” because, at some point, the antidemocratic distortions of the College could threaten the country’s integrity. Judging from Twitter’s obsessions, at least, that hour may be approaching. The polls indicate that Donald Trump is likely to win fewer votes nationally than Joe Biden this fall, just as he won fewer than Hillary Clinton, in 2016. Yet Trump may still win reëlection, since the Electoral College favors voters in small and rural states over those in large and urban ones. Last week, a new book by Bob Woodward revealed how Trump lied, in the early weeks of the pandemic, about the severity of the coronavirus, even though that put American lives at risk; the thought that a reëlected Trump might feel triumphantly affirmed in such mendacity is terrifying. But criticizing the Electoral College simply because it has given us our Trump problem would be misguided. His Presidency, and the chance that it will recur despite his persistent unpopularity, reflects a deeper malignancy in our Constitution, one that looks increasingly unsustainable.
James Madison, who helped conceive the Electoral College at the Constitutional Convention, of 1787, later admitted that delegates had written the rules while impaired by “the hurrying influence produced by fatigue and impatience.” The system is so buggy that, between 1800 and 2016, according to Alexander Keyssar, a rigorous historian of the institution, members of Congress introduced more than eight hundred constitutional amendments to fix its technical problems or to abolish it altogether. In much of the postwar era, strong majorities of Americans have favored dumping the College and adopting a direct national election for President. After Kefauver’s hearings, during the civil-rights era, this idea gained momentum until, in 1969, the House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment to establish a national popular vote for the White House. President Richard Nixon called it “a thoroughly acceptable reform,” but a filibuster backed by segregationist Southerners in the Senate killed it.