The Electoral College is expected to certify Joe Biden as the next president of the United States on Monday, handing him the keys to the White House and effectively putting an end to President Donald Trump’s legal Hail Marys.
But one thing that isn’t settled is the future of the Electoral College itself, say professors of law and political science at Northeastern.
Biden is expected to be officially awarded 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232 votes when electors convene around the country; 270 votes are required for the presidency. Even though it has been apparent for some time that Biden won the presidential contest, ratification of his victory in the Electoral College seals the deal, says Dan Urman, who teaches Constitutional law and the modern U.S. Supreme Court at Northeastern.
“Yes, Biden will be the next president,” he says.
It also likely means the end of the line for Trump’s legal gambit to invalidate the election results, Urman adds. The president can still try to mount a challenge all the way up to the Supreme Court, but the justices “aren’t going to spend capital when he has no chance.”
“A lot of Trump’s antics have stunningly failed,” says Urman.
That includes last week’s Supreme Court rejection of a request from Pennsylvania Republicans to overturn the results that handed Biden its 20 electoral votes. Trump won the state four years ago.
The challenge going forward for Biden will be convincing a large swath of the population that doesn’t believe he’s legitimate, an indication of Trump’s long shadow over the Republican Party, says Urman. “The fact that only 20-something elected Republicans have officially admitted Biden won the election says something about Donald Trump’s dominance.”
“Usually when one-term presidents are tossed out, they quietly exit stage right,” he adds. “Trump is as popular as ever with the party.”
That was underscored by the fact that fewer than half of Republicans see Biden as the nation’s next leader, according to a new survey by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers. In fact, the survey found, more than half of Republicans either believe Trump actually won the 2020 race or aren’t entirely sure who did win.
With Biden’s Electoral College certification expected to be completed by the end of the day on Monday, the next step in the presidential process moves to Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 when Congress tallies the electoral votes in a joint meeting of the House and Senate.
Although lawmakers can object to accepting the electors’ votes, as some Republicans are hinting they may do, it would be almost impossible for Biden, who unsuccessfully sought the Oval Office twice before, to be blocked at that point. His swearing-in ceremony follows on Jan. 20, almost 12 weeks since Election Day on Nov. 3.
If the process of picking a president seems drawn out, it’s because that’s what the Constitution’s framers had in mind, says Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern. The framers wanted time for votes to be counted, for electors to be appointed, and for those electors to have a chance to vote on the results. But the methodical, step-by-step process that was built in the 1700s doesn’t work today, Beauchamp contends.
“No one would ever design a democracy these days where there’s multiple months between one governmental body losing the election and the other one taking over,” he says. The lag “doesn’t make any sense in the current reality and probably hasn’t for the last two centuries.”
Neither does using the Electoral College to choose a president, Beauchamp adds. Eliminating the college and awarding the presidency to the winner of the popular vote, he argues, would be a good step toward greater political equality and fairness.
When the Constitution was written in the 1770s, the college helped slave states maintain power by essentially giving them extra votes, Beauchamp says. Even after slavery was abolished, he argues, the process of proportionately awarding delegates to the states remained unjust. To this day, the candidate who wins the popular vote doesn’t necessarily win the presidency.
That has happened several times, according to critics like former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. In a livestreamed event at last month, the distinguished professor emeritus of political science at Northeastern called the Electoral College a “product of a political compromise,” and said it’s “absurd” that the candidate who gets the most votes doesn’t always become president.
This happened in the 2000 race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, and again in the 2016 contest between Hillary Clinton and Trump. Dukakis and others say the Electoral College’s time has come and gone and should be abolished. Supporters of the Electoral College, however, contend that it helps balance power, giving small states equal footing with larger ones.
The flip side of that argument, Beauchamp points out, is that states with more diverse populations like California are ignored by presidential candidates in favor of swing states with a largely white population. That dynamic results in precious campaign dollars spent on reaching a small number of people who shape the policy agenda and decide the election.
“Millions of dollars are spent all targeting a very specific subset of people,” he says.
More than 700 proposals to reform or eliminate the college have been introduced in Congress since the 1800s, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.
One current option for reform is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia—representing 196 electoral votes—have signed on to this effort to choose presidents based on who gets the most votes. To succeed, the measure still needs to be enacted by states with 74 more electoral votes, for a total of 270 votes.
Getting rid of the Electoral College won’t be easy because too many states benefit from it, a phenomenon called the “entrenchment issue,” says Urman. “Think of Iowa and all the fried candy bars they get to sell every four years,” he says of the Iowa State Fair, a popular destination for presidential contenders.
An interim solution, he says, would be a proportional allotment of votes, similar to the method used by Maine and Nebraska, rather than winner-take-all. “Right now, California sends all of its 55 electoral votes for the winner,” Urman explains. “That silences voters, just like Texas sends all of its votes to the winner.”
Moving to a proportional allotment of electoral votes could easily be accomplished state-by-state by amending state laws, Urman adds. Such a reform would “instantly change the dynamic” by forcing politicians to spend more time in regions where they might be less popular, he says.
“If you look at reform over time in America, the reform usually comes when both parties have something to gain, and right now the Electoral College favors the GOP” says Urman.
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