As an American and a Jew, my experiences have led me to believe that accountability, responsiveness, transparency, and effectiveness in our democratic institutions set the stage for a thriving American Jewish community. Vibrant and vital governing and civil society institutions have led to deep and active participation and engagement by American Jews. Our country and people are better off for that relationship.
The U.S. president is elected by a majority of the 538 Electoral College votes. Each state is given a number of electors, depending on the state’s number of congressional seats, plus one elector for each senator. In 2000, presidential candidate Albert Gore received more popular votes than candidate George W. Bush, but Bush became the president because he had more votes in the Electoral College. That split in popular votes and Electoral College votes has happened only twice before — in the critical 1876 election and in 1888. The split suggests serious flaws in our election system.
On the surface, ending this system should be a no-brainer. Having spent my adult life devoted to matters of political reform, I’ve wrestled with questions about the ethics of this system — specifically through a liberal Jewish lens. The system is flawed for two primary reasons: First, a candidate can receive the majority of popular votes and yet fail to win the election; and second, the system can be manipulated through gerrymandered redistricting. For example, awarding electoral votes by congressional district in politically competitive states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin would weaken the winner-take-all aspects of the Electoral College and rewards politically partisan gerrymandering. This is not a theoretical discussion. It is an approach raised by Republican leaders in the aforementioned states in an effort to change the ground rules for the 2016 election. And yet, I wouldn’t consider making a constitutional change to the Electoral College system. Rather, our priority should be on statutory changes that, at the national level, protect the right to vote.
As a senator in the mid-1950s, John F. Kennedy helped preserve the Electoral College and save it from harmful changes. At the time, he opposed a system that proportionally allocated the electoral votes or, alternately, awarded votes by congressional districts. Kennedy brilliantly explained why the Electoral College increased the political influence of voters in large states, which included American Jews and African Americans. During and after the New Deal, voters created a political balance to the one-party states that dominated the South and small states.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the amendments that followed changed the country. African Americans and other minorities were given opportunities to exercise their right to vote fully and freely. Yet the VRA is under constant threat. In 2012, voter restriction laws were passed in 16 states that extended beyond the South. Photo-identification laws and the elimination of some early voting periods in urban areas were among the efforts designed to keep poorer people and people of color from the polls.
The United States needs an enforceable law that protects the universal right to vote by all eligible Americans. Racial issues are at stake but the restrictions also adversely affect students, the working poor, and the elderly.
The best argument for the “popular vote” acknowledges that presidential campaigns are effectively limited to “battleground” states. Most states never, or rarely, see a presidential or vice-presidential candidate. This is a legitimate problem, and it will only be addressed with the elimination of the Electoral College. But it is not a sufficient reason to change the system at this time. Until we have equal access to voting, without the discriminatory efforts that purge lower-income people and people of color from the voting rolls, we are not treating voters equally. Otherwise, states that restrict voting will distort the popular vote. Voter access laws must be equitable, and that requires federal standards to protect the right to vote from state efforts that work overtime to thwart voting. It seems that many Republican state leaders who are angry because they lost an election that they had expected to win have found ways to change the outcome of an election: Set up barriers to voting. Restrictive voting laws diminish the idea of one person-one vote. Undemocratic at their core, such laws fly in the face of the goal of equal access to voting.
The lines have been sharply drawn. Our legislators are either pro-democratic and they want to enhance and protect the vote or they are anti-democratic, and they work to obstruct and restrict it. The choice is ours.