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A look at institutional changes that could address minority rule in government


OK. So those are things that individuals can do. But are there institutional changes that could make a difference? We get the view now from two scholars who've been thinking about this. First, we return to Jonathan Gienapp. That's the Stanford University history professor we heard from earlier.

JONATHAN GIENAPP: When you ponder the potential answers, it can be sobering because it is so very difficult to change any of these hard-wired features of the constitutional system that I've been describing precisely because it's so hard to amend the Constitution.

But, you know, one thing that I like to draw attention to, because I feel very few Americans are actually aware of it, is that the Electoral College, of course, has come in for considerable criticism because there has been this divergence, as you mentioned, between who wins the popular vote and who wins the Electoral College. We've seen that twice in the past 25 years. And people assume that the reason that is happening is because we have the Electoral College, rather than something else, like a national popular vote. And that's certainly true to a point. But the primary feature of the Electoral College that has determined those outcomes is not the fact that we elect presidents based on state-based electors but the entirely separate fact, which is not required by the Constitution at all, that virtually every state awards their electoral votes on a winner-take-all model.

So you might ask yourself, when one candidate wins Florida with 51% of the vote, why does that candidate get 100% of the electoral votes in Florida? And the reason why is state law. It can be abolished tomorrow by the state legislatures. They have free reign over how they distribute their electoral votes. And if people maybe paid more attention and asked themselves - you know, especially people who think they're in the minority in a particular state - California, where I live, is overwhelmingly Democratic, but a huge percentage of the population is Republican. The popular vote in a presidential election is 60-40. Why shouldn't the electoral votes be distributed 60% to the side that got 60%, 40% to the side that got 40%?

If electoral votes were distributed proportionally rather than winner take all, George W. Bush would not have won the election in 2000. Donald Trump would not have won the election in 2016. It wasn't just that there's an Electoral College. It was that because Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by razor-thin margins in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, he got 100% of the electoral votes in those states. None of that is required by the Constitution. None of that requires a constitutional fix. All of that can be changed through ordinary legislation. And again, that's not likely to happen because a certain set of political elements recognize the importance of it. But the mere fact that people don't know much about this or talk about it - this question is rarely even raised.

MARTIN: That was Jonathan Gienapp, associate professor of history at Stanford University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.