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An Idea for Electoral College Reform That Both Parties Might Actually Like

Americans have heard for years that the Electoral College is broken—just look at the presidential elections of 2000 and 2016, when the winner earned fewer votes nationally than the loser. We have also heard that, despite its flaws, this system won’t change anytime soon. Republicans generally oppose a national popular vote, which would both undermine them electorally and violate the Founding Fathers’ desire for the presidency to reflect America’s federalist structure as a union of separate states.

But here is an argument for Electoral College reform that might actually appeal to conservatives: Simply put, the way we currently elect presidents would horrify the early American authors of the U.S. electoral system, as defined in the 12th Amendment.

The drafters of that amendment, above all, wanted presidents to be elected according to the principle of majority rule. By the early 1800s, America had experimented four times with presidential elections, and had seen how the Founders’ original electoral system gave undue power to the minority party. In response, members of Congress devised a system—still federalist in nature—in which the winner of an Electoral College majority was supposed to have won majority support in the states.

The problem? In the decades since, states have abandoned their commitment to majority rule. Candidates today can win all of a state’s Electoral College votes with simply a plurality of votes in that state—and that state, either alone or along with others where the same thing happens, can swing entire elections. In 2016, Donald Trump won all the electoral votes, totaling 101, in six states where he received less than 50 percent of the popular vote: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (Hillary Clinton won seven states this way.) Those 101 votes were one-third of the 304 Trump won overall—they were essential to his reaching an Electoral College majority of 270 and becoming president.

How did America’s presidential elections go so far astray from the goals of the 12th Amendment? And can we go back?

Understanding this deviation requires first going back to the origins of our current Electoral College system and examining what it was designed to accomplish. This history can also offer models for how states might change their rules in order to restore America’s commitment to majority rule.