On WBUR (Boston, MA)’s On Point, listen to Alexander Keyssar discuss the problematic nature of the enduring fixture of American democracy:
“America’s greatest historian of democracy now offers an extraordinary history of the most bizarre aspect of our representative democracy—the electoral college.”—Lawrence Lessig, author of They Don’t Represent Us
“Conclusively demonstrates the absurdity of preserving an institution that has been so contentious throughout U.S. history and has not infrequently produced results that defied the popular will.”—Michael Kazin, The Nation
“Rigorous and highly readable…shows how the electoral college has endured despite being reviled by statesmen from James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson to Edward Kennedy, Bob Dole, and Gerald Ford.”—Lawrence Douglas, Times Literary Supplement
Every four years, millions of Americans wonder why they choose their presidents through the Electoral College, an arcane institution that permits the loser of the popular vote to become president and narrows campaigns to swing states. Most Americans have long preferred a national popular vote, and Congress has attempted on many occasions to alter or scuttle the Electoral College. Several of these efforts—one as recently as 1970—came very close to winning approval. Yet this controversial system remains.
Alexander Keyssar explains its persistence. After tracing the Electoral College’s tangled origins at the Constitutional Convention, he explores the efforts from 1800 to 2020 to abolish or significantly reform it, showing why each has failed. Reasons include the complexity of the electoral system’s design, the tendency of political parties to elevate partisan advantage above democratic values, the difficulty of passing constitutional amendments, and, importantly, the South’s prolonged backing of the Electoral College, grounded in its desire to preserve white supremacy in the region. The commonly voiced explanation that small states have blocked reform for fear of losing influence proves to have been true only occasionally.
Keyssar examines why reform of the Electoral College has received so little attention from Congress for the last forty years, and considers alternatives to congressional action such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and state efforts to eliminate winner-take-all. In analyzing the reasons for past failures while showing how close the nation has come to abolishing the institution, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? offers encouragement to those hoping to produce change in the twenty-first century.