ABOLISH THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE -- Senate Speech - Speech by Senator RIchard Durbin

-- Senate Speech -
Senator Richard Durbin

December 06, 2000

Mr. President, 5 weeks ago, on November 1, I held a news conference with my colleague from Illinois, Congressman RAY LAHOOD, on the subject of the electoral college. I always preface my remarks on this issue by reminding people that that was before the November 7 election.

   In 1993, I had introduced legislation with Congressman GERALD KLECZKA, of Wisconsin, as a Member of the House, to abolish the electoral college. Congressman LAHOOD and I came forward on November 1 of this year and made the same recommendation before the election on November 7. So what I am about to say and what I am about to propose, really, although it is going to take into account what happened in our last election, is motivated by a belief that the underlying mechanism in America for choosing the President of the United States is flawed and should be changed.

   On that day, November 1, I came to the floor of the Senate to explain why I thought the Constitution should be amended to replace the electoral college with a system to directly elect our President. One week after the press conference, the American people went to the polls to express their will. It is worth pausing to realize that we are living through an extraordinary election, the closest by far in more than a century. As we await the outcome, it is important to remember that soon our country will have a new President. I am confident that our great will successfully navigate the difficulties of this historic election. I am concerned, however, at the loss of confidence of the American voters in the system we know as the electoral college.

   If we do nothing else over the next year, let's commit to improve and reform the way we elect leaders in America. There are three critical areas of election system reform that I think we should address. The first is campaign financing. I certainly support the McCain-Feingold bipartisan approach to cleaning up the way we pay for campaigns. The second is the mechanisms of the voting process. My colleagues, Senator SCHUMER of New York and Senator BROWNBACK of Kansas, have suggested we put some money on the table for States and localities that want to put in more efficient and more accurate voting machinery. I think that is a good idea. And, of course, the third is changing the electoral college. Today I will discuss replacing that system with a direct popular vote for President.

   For those who want to defend the current electoral college system, I want to ask, What are the philosophical underpinnings that lie at its foundation? I submit there are none. Instead, the electoral college was a contrived institution, created to appeal to a majority of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, who were divided by the issue of Federal versus State powers, big State versus small State rivalries, the balance of power between branches of Government, and slavery.

   James Madison was opposed to any system of electing the President that did not maintain the South's representational formula gained in an earlier compromise that counted three-fifths of the African American population toward their State totals. A direct popular election of the Chief Executive would have diluted the influence of the South and diluted the votes based on the slave population.

   Many delegates opposed a direct popular election on the grounds that voters would not have sufficient knowledge of the candidates to make an informed choice. Roger Sherman, delegate from Connecticut, said during the Convention: I stand opposed to the election by the people. The people want for information and are constantly liable to be misled.

   Given the slowness of travel and communication of that day, coupled with the low level of literacy, the delegates feared that national candidates would be rare and that favorite sons would

   dominate the political landscape. James Madison predicted that the House of Representatives would end up choosing the President 19 times out of 20.

   Also, this system was created before the era of national political parties. The delegates intended the electoral college to consist of a group of wise men--and they were all men at that time--appointed by the States, who would gather to select a President based primarily on their individual judgments. It was a compromise between election of the President by Congress and election by popular vote. Certainly, it is understandable that a young nation, forged in revolution and experimenting with a new form of government, would choose a less risky method for selecting a President.

   Clearly, most of the original reasons for creating the electoral college have long since disappeared, and after 200 years of experience with democracy, the rationale for replacing it with a direct popular vote is clear and compelling.

   First, the electoral college is undemocratic and unfair. It distorts the election process, with some votes by design having more weight than others. Imagine for a moment if you were told as follows: We want you to vote for President. We are going to give you one vote in selection of the President, but a neighbor of yours is going to have three votes in selecting the President.

   You would say that is not American, that is fundamentally unfair. We live in a nation that is one person--one citizen, one vote.

   But that is exactly what the electoral college does. When you look at the States, Wyoming has a population of roughly 480,000 people. In the State of Wyoming, they have three electoral votes. So that means that roughly they have 1 vote for President for every 160,000 people who live in the State of Wyoming--1 vote for President, 160,000 people. My home State of Illinois: 12 million people and specifically 22 electoral votes. That means it takes 550,000 voters in Illinois to vote and cast 1 electoral vote for President. Comparing the voters in Wyoming] to the voters in Illinois, there are three times as many people voting in Illinois to have 1 vote for President as in the State of Wyoming.

   On the other hand, the philosophical underpinning of a direct popular election system is so clear and compelling it hardly needs mentioning. We use direct elections to choose Senators, Governors, Congressmen, and mayors, but we do not use it to elect a President. One-person, one-vote, and majority rule are supposedly basic tenets of a democracy.

   I am reminded of the debate that surrounded the 17th amendment which provides for the direct election of Senators. It is interesting. When our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they said the people of the United States could choose and fill basically three Federal offices: The U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the President and Vice President. But only in the case of the U.S. House of Representatives did they allow the American people to directly elect that Federal officer with an election every 24 months.

   I suppose their theory at the time was those running for Congress lived closer to the voters, and if the voters made a mistake, in 24 months they could correct it. But when it came to the election of Senators in the original Constitution, those Founding Fathers committed to democracy did not trust democracy. They said: We will let State legislatures choose those who will serve in the Senate. That was the case in America until 1913. With the 17th amendment, we provided for the direct election of Senators. So now we directly elect Senators and Congressmen, but we still cling to this age-old electoral college as an indirect way of electing Presidents of the United States. The single greatest benefit of adopting the 17th amendment and providing for the direct election of Senators was that voters felt more invested in the Senate as an institution and therefore able to have more faith in it.

   In my State, in that early debate about the 17th amendment, there was a Senator who was accused of bribing members of the State legislature to be elected to the Senate. There were two different hearings on Capitol Hill. The first exonerated him. The second found evidence that bribery did take place. That was part of the impetus behind this reform movement in the direct election of Senators.

   Second, while it appears smaller and more rural States have an advantage in the electoral college, the reality of modern Presidential campaigns is that these States are generally ignored.

   One of my colleagues on the floor said: I will fight you, DURBIN, on this idea of abolishing the electoral college. I come from a little State, and if you go to a popular vote to elect a President, Presidential candidates will pay no attention to my little State.

   I have news for my colleagues. You did not see Governor Bush or Vice President GORE spending much time campaigning in Rhode Island or Idaho. In fact, 14 States were never visited by either candidate during the campaign, while 38 States received 10 or fewer visits. The more populous contested States with their large electoral prizes, such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, really have the true advantage whether we have a direct election or whether we have it by the electoral college.

   Third, the electoral college system totally discounts the votes of those supporting the losing candidate in their State. In the 2000 Presidential race, 36 States were never really in doubt. The average percentage difference of the popular vote between the candidates in those States was more than 20 percent. The current system not only discounts losing votes; it essentially adds the

   full weight and value of those votes to the candidate those voters oppose.

   If you were on the losing side in a State such as Illinois, which went for AL GORE, if you cast your vote for George Bush, your vote is not counted. It is a winner-take-all situation. All 22 electoral votes in the State of Illinois went to AL GORE, as the votes in other States, such as Texas, went exclusively to George Bush.

   Fourth, the winner-take-all rules greatly increase the risk that minor third party candidates will determine who is elected President. In the electoral college system, the importance of a small number of votes in a few key States is greatly magnified. In a number of U.S. Presidential elections, third party candidates have affected a few key State races and determined the overall winner.

   We can remember that Ross Perot may have cost President Bush his reelection in 1992, and Ralph Nader may have cost AL GORE the 2000 election. In fact, in 1 out of every 4 Presidential elections since 1824, the winner was one State away from becoming the loser based on the electoral college vote count.

   This is a chart which basically goes through the U.S. Presidential elections since 1824 and talks about those situations where we had a minority President, which we did with John Adams in 1824, with Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888. These Presidential candidates lost the popular vote but won the election, which is rare in American history. It may happen this time. We do not know the outcome yet as I speak on the floor today.

   In so many other times, though, we had very close elections where, in fact, the electoral vote was not close at all. Take the extremely close race in 1960 to which many of us point: John Kennedy, 49.7 percent of the vote; Richard Nixon, 49.5 percent. Look at the electoral college breakdown: 56 percent going to John Kennedy; 40 percent to Richard Nixon. The electoral college did not reflect the feelings of America when it came to that race.

   The same thing can be said when we look at the race in 1976. Jimmy Carter won with 50.1 percent of the vote over Gerald Ford with 48 percent of the vote. Jimmy Carter ended up with 55 percent of the electoral college and Gerald Ford with 44 percent. Again, the electoral college did not reflect that reality.

   In comparison, under a direct popular vote system where over 100 million votes are cast, third party candidates generally would have a much more difficult time playing the spoiler. For instance, there have only been two elections since 1824 where the popular vote has been close enough to even consider a recount. Those were 1880 and 1960. In today's Presidential elections, a difference of even one-tenth of 1 percent represents 100,000 votes.

   Fifth, the electoral college is clearly a more risky system than a direct popular vote, providing ample opportunity for manipulation, mischief, and litigation.

   The electoral college provides that the House of Representatives choose the President when no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes. That happened in 1801 and 1825.

   The electoral system allows Congress to dispute the legitimacy of electors. This occurred several times just after the Civil War and once in 1969.

   In 1836, the Whig Party ran different Presidential candidates in different regions of the country. Their plan was to capitalize on the local popularity of the various candidates and then to pool the Whig electors to vote for a single Whig candidate or to throw the election to Congress.

   In this century, electors in seven elections have cast ballots for candidates contrary to their State vote. Presidents have received fewer popular votes than their main opponent in 3 of the 44 elections since 1824.

   In the 2000 election, I ask why the intense spotlight on Florida? The answer is simple: That is where the deciding electoral votes are. More disturbing is the fact that anyone following the election knew that Florida was the tightest race of those States with large electoral prizes. Those wishing to manipulate the election had a very clear target.

   In contrast, under a direct popular vote system, there is no equivalent pressure point. Any scheme attempting to change several hundred thousand votes necessary to turn even the closest Presidential election is difficult to imagine in a country as vast and populous as the United States. Similarly, as I previously mentioned, recounts will be much more rare under a direct popular vote system given the size of the electorate.

   Some people have said to me: DURBIN, if you have a direct popular vote--here we had GORE winning the vote this time by 250,000 votes--wouldn't you have contests all across the Nation to try to make up that difference? Look what happened in Florida. The original Bush margin was about 1,700 votes. It is now down to 500 votes after 4 weeks of recount efforts and efforts in court, not a very substantial change in a State with 6 million votes. So to change 250,000 votes nationwide if we go to a popular vote would, of course, be a daunting challenge.

   Throughout American history, there has been an inexorable march toward one citizen, one vote. As the Thirteen Colonies were debating if and how to join a more perfect Union, only a privileged few--those with the right skin color, the right gender, and the right financial status--enjoyed the right to cast votes to select their leaders. The people even gained the right to choose their Senators by popular vote with the ratification of the 17th amendment in 1913.

   As one barrier after another has fallen, we are one step away from a system that treats all Americans equally, where a ballot cast for President in Illinois or Utah or Rhode Island has the same weight as one cast in Oregon or Florida. The electoral college is the last barrier preventing us from achieving that goal. As the world's first and greatest democracy, it is time to fully trust the people of America and allow them the right to choose a President.

   We would like to say, when this is all over, that the American people have spoken and chosen their President. The fact is that is not the case. With the electoral college, the American people do not make the choice. The choice is made indirectly, by electing electors in each State, on a winner-take-all basis.

   I leave you with a quote from Representative George Norris of Nebraska, who said the following during the debate in 1911 in support of the direct election of U.S. Senators. I quote:

   It is upon the citizens that we depend for stability as a government. It is upon the patriotic, common, industrious people of our country that our Government must always lean in time of danger and distress. To this class of people then, we should give the right to control by direct election the selection of our public officials and to permit each citizen who is part of the sinew and backbone of our Government in time of danger to exercise his influence by direct vote in time of peace.

   Mr. President, I will be introducing this proposal to abolish the electoral college and to establish the direct election of a President as part of our agenda in the next Congress. I sincerely hope it will be debated and considered. This time is the right time for us to take the time and look at the way we choose the President of the United States. It will not change the outcome of what happened on November 7 in the year 2000. But if history is our guide, I hope we will learn from this past experience and make our election machinery more democratic and more responsive.

   Part of my proposal will also include the requirement that anyone to be elected President has to win 40 percent of the popular vote. Failing that, the top two candidates would face a runoff election. I think it is reasonable to suggest that leading this country requires at least the approval of 40 percent of the popular vote. That is why it would be included.

   I hope my colleagues in the Senate, even those from the smaller States, will pause and take a look at this proposal.

   I hope, before I yield the floor to my colleague from Minnesota, to make one other comment. There is a lot of talk about how this contest is going to end when it comes to this last election and the impact it will have on the Presidency.

   I continue to believe that the American people want a strong President. They want a strong leader in the White House. They want our President to succeed. Whoever is finally declared the winner in the November 7, 2000, election, that person, I believe, deserves the support not only of the American people but clearly of Congress, too. We have to rally behind our next President in support of those decisions which really do chart the course for America. I think that force, coupled with the Senate equally divided 50-50, is going to be a positive force in bringing this Nation back together after this session of Congress comes to a close.  
July 13th 2009
Albatross of U.S. democracy
Indianapolis Star

FairVote research is cited in support of the National Popular Vote plan in Indiana, because "every vote cast for president should be equally important and equally coveted, whether it originates in California, Connecticut or Crawfordsville."

July 9th 2009
Winner-take-all can elect a second-place president
San Diego Union-Tribune

The founder of National Popular Vote lays out the shortcomings and injustices of the Electoral College system, and shows why the National Popular Vote plan is the right solution.

May 17th 2009
Why states should adopt the National Popular Vote plan for president
San Diego Union-Tribune

FairVote's Rob Richie writes that the Electoral College deepens political inequality, and explains why the National Popular Vote plan is our best opportunity to ensure that every vote for president is equally valued.

May 14th 2009
Let's Make Every Vote Count
The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation magazine, highlights FairVote's research in an important piece on the "broad support" growing in the states for the National Popular Vote plan to elect the president.

May 13th 2009
Representative Democracy: Two Steps Forward
The Daily Herald

The executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute heralds the passage of the National Popular Vote bill in Washington state.

[ Next ]