Many Democrats increasingly view the Electoral College as a racist institution designed to steal presidential elections for Republicans, to which its defenders say: Imagine a world without it.
Presidential candidates could be elected without reaching out to Black or Hispanic voters. The two-party system would splinter into factions seeking a plurality by appealing to single-issue voters. Rural America would be ignored while big cities replace swing states as the campaign destinations of choice.
That, at least, is the scenario laid out in “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story,” a documentary by Save Our States scheduled for release Tuesday that explains the history and offers a defense of the presidential election system as its future hangs in the balance.
“The Electoral College is so misunderstood, and so subject to assumptions and half-truths,” said Trent England, executive director of Save Our States, an activist nonprofit that opposes illegal immigration. “But it’s a fascinating institution. I thought there was a good story to tell that can help Americans understand and appreciate the constitutional system we have through the Electoral College, which has become more interesting to Americans over the last four years.”
Indeed, the Electoral College landed in the crosshairs after the 2000 presidential race. Republican George W. Bush won the White House despite having lost the popular vote, sparking the creation of the National Popular Vote movement in 2006.
That effort picked up steam in 2016, when Republican Donald Trump pieced together an Electoral College victory without capturing the popular vote. Since then, another five states have joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, bringing the total to 16 jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia.
The compact would not eliminate the Electoral College but render it irrelevant by having states pledge to cast their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote, no matter the vote in their states. The plan would take effect after it is enacted in states with a total of 270 electoral votes; it now has 196.
The idea is quickly becoming mainstream on the left. More than a dozen of the Democratic presidential candidates this year supported abolishing the Electoral College, although former Vice President Joseph R. Biden does not. His running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, has said she is “open to the discussion.”
Standing athwart the anti-Electoral College wave is Save Our States, which formed as a project of the conservative Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs in 2009, shortly after California inventor and computer science professor John Koza launched National Popular Vote.
“The biggest problem we face is that people don’t know how the Electoral College works, and they’ve never thought through what the trade-offs are,” Mr. England said.
The 75-minute documentary, which The Washington Times viewed exclusively ahead of the release date, features professors, advocates and pundits taking on critics and clearing up questions.
For starters: “It’s not a college. You don’t actually go there to study,” said Hillsdale College professor Matthew Spalding.
What is it? “It’s an odd bird in the sense of it’s not an obvious thing,” he said. “Having said that, it’s a quite brilliant creation on the part of the founders.”
Among the benefits: The Electoral College pushes candidates to the center by forcing them to appeal to blue and red states and urban and rural voters, whereas a popular vote system would allow candidates to pile up a majority in left-tilting metropolitan areas, according to the documentary.
“Without the Electoral College, the presidency would be decided in Boston, New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles,” said J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation. “That’s where the game would be without the Electoral College. Instead of that, you have candidates for president going all over the country and not just going to urban corridors.”
Opponents argue that the Electoral College system gives disproportionate power to swing states, which typically decide the election. Advocates counter that today’s “safe” state is often tomorrow’s battleground state.
Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were viewed as reliable Democratic states before President Trump won them in 2016. All three are in play in November.
“At one point, the Democrats thought they would always be dominant in Alabama, and the Republicans thought they would always be dominant in Vermont,” Mr. England said. “People make this claim that just a few states matter, and they miss that over time, every state matters.”
National Popular Vote senior consultant Patrick Rosenstiel disagreed. “National Popular Vote will force candidates to campaign in all 50 states,” he said.
“It’s hard to imagine how Save Our States can defend the state-based, winner-take-all-system,” Mr. Rosenstiel said in an email. “Four out of five American voters are stuck in flyover states for yet another presidential election. This is bad for the country and bad for voters of every party and political persuasion.”
Opponents also claim that the Electoral College is racist given that electors, like congressional representatives, were assigned on the basis of population, with slaves initially counting as three-fifths of a person. The 13th Amendment abolished that system in 1865.
Even today, opponents argue that the influence of Black voters is diluted because many live in Republican-heavy Southern states. Joseph Pinion of the Pinion Media Group said National Popular Vote supporters should be careful what they wish for.
As it stands, “it is impossible to get elected president without Black people voting,” he said, but without the Electoral College, a candidate could win with an all-white national majority.
“When you take away the Electoral College, you create a scenario where people can get elected president of the United States without a single vote cast in their name by a single minority. That is the reality that we need to be facing,” Mr. Pinion said.
Princeton University senior research scholar Allen Guelzo said that in a national system, candidates would be able to “pay no attention to African-American voters.” In the 2016 election, Blacks accounted for about 12% of the vote.
“In the Electoral College system, you do have to pay attention to African-American voters because in a number of key swing states, African-American voters are an important component of the voting public. And you had better have something important to say for African-American voters to hear, or you lose their votes,” Mr. Guelzo said. “And if you lose their votes, you lose that state, you lose that swing state, you lose the Electoral College.”
For those bothered by the idea that a minority of voters can elect the president, the documentary points out that ensuring democratic rule was not the goal of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights is profoundly undemocratic because it forbids the majority from establishing a state religion or abolishing a free press, among other things.
“The Constitution does not establish a democracy,” Mr. England said. “The Constitution is about establishing self-government in a way that protects individual rights, which oftentimes is directly at odds with democracy if the majority of the people want in some particular moment to interfere with the rights of a minority.”
If it helps, think of the Electoral College as a multigame championship series like the NBA Finals or the World Series, said Michael Maibach, Save Our States distinguished fellow.
“You can think of the World Series the same way,” he said. “It’s not who gets the most runs in seven games; it’s who wins the most games. And in the Electoral College, it’s who wins in effect the most states, not just who gets the most votes in total across the nation.”
Imagine the votes represent runs. “No one says the World Series is undemocratic because, you know, my team got 24 runs in the series and your team got 12,” Mr. Maibach said. “They won more games.”
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