The presidency isn't profitable enough. I'm going to go back to farming. Welcome to You're Wrong about the podcast where everyone gets to be a real American. Hmm. I don't get it. So much of this episode is going to depend on the idea that some people's votes should count for more than others because they're real.
The 30 Rock concept of real America. Yes, I got it. Thank you. We got there eventually.
I am Michael, but I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post. I'm Sarah Marshall and I'm working on a book about the Satanic Panic.
And and we have a special guest this week.
One of our favorite writers should actually go ahead and introduce myself then. Yeah. Yeah, go ahead. OK, that's all right. I'm very bad at this part of the podcast.
That's why we just really. And go. Go. We're just going to be silent for the next two hours. Jamal, you just have to take it from here.
My name is Jamelle Bouie. I'm a columnist with The New York Times.
One of the most enduring pleasures of doing the show is how many of our favorite writers have gotten in touch with us to say that they are listeners. And that is what Jamelle did a couple of weeks ago. And we're delighted.
Yeah, no, I love the show. I've been listening. I think I've discovered it a lot, like a lot of people at the beginning of covid quarantine and everything, I was kind of adding new podcast to the rotation and a friend recommended yours and I promptly kind of just went through the back catalog.
So I'm almost caught up.
Also, it's fun to have a podcast is basically targeted towards people in my exact age range to mid 30s.
So yeah, that's very weird sandwich position where and where, like where we're simultaneously the elders to one group and the youngsters to. Yeah. Which I guess everyone goes through at one time in history or another, but it's annoying so I'm going to complain about it.
Anxious covid millennials are our target. So thank you for being here.
And today we are doing a topical episode on the Electoral College.
This is our most topical episode ever. I know as we're recording this, Joe Biden won the election after they call the state of Pennsylvania 90 minutes ago. Yes.
So put yourself back into like that emotional place. And that is where we are podcasting from.
If you can't necessarily put yourself in that emotional place, like imagine the end of Return of the Jedi pre special editions with people celebrating that song, not just playing.
It's a good idea.
And it's also a little anticlimactic because you're like, oh, it's just a bunch of teddy bears. Like, I don't know how capable the teddy bears are of governing. I mean, I like them. Beautiful. Yes.
We're coming to you live from Ecuador. And today we are talking about the Electoral College.
Jamal, just because we have some listeners who aren't in the United States and this is a baroque and confusing system to most humans generally, do you mind just walking us through what the Electoral College is and how it works?
Sure thing. I mean, it's worth saying from the jump that although, you know, we just talked about Biden winning. Sarah said that he won after Pennsylvania was announced.
But at that time, Biden had already won the national popular vote by at least around four and a half million votes.
And that number is likely to expand to somewhere between six and seven million people.
And so any other country Biden would have won on Tuesday when it was more than apparent that he had won the national popular vote. Here we have the system called the Electoral College. And the way it works is that every state is given a number of electors. That number is based off of the number of senators they have, which every state has two and the number of representatives in the House of Representatives they have, which varies by population. To become president, you have to win a majority of electors.
Basically, it's not just that the president has to win the most votes in America. They have to win the most votes in some number of states to get their Electoral College votes. So the idea is that if any particular state is over 51 percent, all of those votes, in a way, are wasted because it's not one election. It's basically 50 separate elections.
Right. In theory, you can win an election by around 30 with with around 30 percent of the vote and still win a majority of Electoral College votes just because the distribution of votes and population.
Right. It's also true that the Constitution doesn't actually specify how electors have to be chosen, distribute it.
And so it's theoretically possible that the states totaling 270 all change their laws to say we're going to give our electoral votes to the Republican or to the Democrat, regardless of what the voters say.
What so that's like an earbud situation. They're like, well, nothing in the rulebook, I guess. You know, the golden retriever can play basketball, right?
Pretty much. There's no other country that does this. There's no state that does this right.
At least not now. Prior prior to the civil rights movement, many Southern states did it, but they did it as a way to kind of prevent any candidate supported by the black population of the. States from winning in actually less on Election Day, the state of Mississippi finally got rid of its statewide electoral college system after 120 years in in effect. I didn't know that. Yeah, actually, it's insane. It's an insane thing that existed.
So it's basically this is a system specifically designed to disenfranchise certain people and make some votes count more than others.
Right. So this is and I think it's probably worth talking about the origins of the Electoral College, because I think this is one thing where it's basically tied up in a lot of what I have been calling like the folk civics of America, sort of the reason our system of design, which often have little or no relationship to the actual events behind the designing of the systems.
If you look at textbooks from the 50s, the 40s, the 60s, American government is spoken of in the sense that every part of it was designed for a purpose.
The quote unquote fun thing about the Electoral College is that to the extent that American government was exquisitely designed, the one part that actually was not was the Electoral College.
The best way to describe the process behind the Electoral College was a bunch of very tired and kind of drunk politicians, couldn't figure out a solution to one particular problem.
And instead of spending any more time working on it, they said, let's just go back to the bad idea someone else had before, mess around with it a little bit and go with that because it's not going to matter anyway.
So it's like city planning in the Midwest, but in some roundabout.
So can we can you tell the story actually? Yeah.
Is it the is is this the end of a long seiter drinking day among the folks civic things that people believe is at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was this high minded, you know, group of philosopher kings. And some of the people there were very, very intelligent.
James Madison, who I always refer to as like my problematic fave of the founding generation, because obviously he's a slave owner.
I mean, it's sort of like they're all half of them are slave owners. And so you can't really bracket that. Yeah.
And people like Adams are profiteering off of the industry anyway, so no one gets to announce their cleanliness. Right.
I just want to say that I find this period of American history so fascinating.
And you have to just have to get past all of the mythology, not just because it sort of obscures all the bad stuff, but it also obscures all the interesting insane stuff.
And it flattens the extent to which, like these are actual living, human breathing people engage in all sorts of activities, such as drinking cider at work and having syphilis.
Right. Hey, you tell us a little bit about James Madison himself as your problematic fave. Yeah.
So Madison, as sort of a parenthetical there, there is one of the kind of most groundbreaking books in kind of a study of the Early Republic is a book called American Slavery, American Freedom. And it's a study of the development of slavery in Virginia.
The reason you had so many luminaries of the revolutionary generation come out of Virginia, not just Washington and Jefferson and Madison, all these big names, the reason they come out of Virginia is that Virginians were the people in the colonies who had the most intimate knowledge of what slavery actually was.
American notions of freedom are dialectically connected to actually having been developed by people who are slavers.
That's fucked. So like they've seen what the lack of freedom looks like and that gives them a better conception of what freedom is like. This is what you lack, right?
Whatever we're doing, it's the opposite of that is what we want to experience. George Costanza of Constitution.
Yes, Joe Madison is a slaveholder. He is from Central Virginia. He is a Montpelier. His home is just down the street and literally from Monticello. I live in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson, Madison were lifelong friends.
If Jefferson is kind of like the archetypal Virginia gentleman, sort of courtly and sophisticated, then Madison is sort of like the nerd leader of the group.
You know, he he can he can ride a horse.
He can he knows how to farm, you know, that knowledge and everything. But he kind of doesn't like to do any of that, even more so than Jefferson. He kind of just likes to be in his books this time.
He would have been in his twenties. And so you got it. You got to think of a lot of these people in the seventeen sixties and seventies is being twenty somethings.
And are they like the Bernie Rose of their time, kind of any designation of like hyper enthusiastic, aggressive political guy.
That's what they are.
So the point is that we know these people and them. It's like mythological figures.
We think of them as like that, that Marxist thing that and that English class. Right. Wow.
He talked a lot about. As a member of the confederation, Congress and Madison basically sees how American government just could not work, was not working. There was no majority rule.
You had to have a supermajority basically to do anything because it's just kind of hard to get everyone to agree to doing any one thing.
What routinely happened is that some number of delegates but always fall just short of a supermajority.
They were to convince a majority that they could not convince nearly enough people.
I used to live in Denmark and there's a very strong unanimity culture in Denmark where everyone has to agree to everything. So I remember we were doing a thing at work once where it was like once a month we would have the staff meeting and we were debating whether or not one staff member should be delegated to like buy croissants and bagels for everybody. And some people wanted this system and some people didn't. But we couldn't ever come to an agreement. Like we couldn't get everyone to agree to either.
Yes. Bagels or no bagels.
And so the bagels walked free. So literally spent nine months debating this. Every meeting, it would come up. They're like, OK, do you want to keep the bagel system or not keep the bagel system? And we would debate it every time and we would never get to unanimity. It's just like a metaphor for the way that you just waste time on everything and you don't get bagels.
And croissants for nine months like you could have exactly nine months of croissants.
Exactly. And no one actually cares that much. You end up endlessly debating rather than just being like, you know, three people are not going to get their way on this one. Sorry, but it also explains everything about European politics. But go ahead. And Hamlett.
Yeah, that's that's the Articles of Confederation as well.
So is the Electoral College like something that they just sort of come up with on a whim?
So it's seven. It's the constitutional convention countries conventions called earlier in the year because the current government, the Articles of Confederation, were not working. So the conventions called.
It's kind of a bit of a scam.
James Madison, he sells it as, hey, we just need to make some amendments to the articles to let us do these things for, you know, actual having a government that can only do things and he can just convince most of the states other than Rhode Island to send delegates.
And then when they all show up, Madisons, like now, while you're here, I have this detailed plan for a new government. I like everyone to consider it.
So he basically does this like the way that your friend invites you over to watch a movie and then at the end they try to pitch you to join an MLM. It's like, why don't we just rewrite the Constitution while we're at it?
Madison like an Amway salesperson. Yeah, yeah. So they're kind of negotiating.
Miss America had them in this process of figuring out how to build this government. They start discussing the presidency. What's the president going to do? How is the executive branch can be arranged and how is a person going to be chosen in the first place? Madison thinks it should be some segment of the people. This is a national office or should be should have popular input into it.
Another delegate suggests that maybe they choose electors and this is something by practicality.
How are you actually going to hold a national election in 1787 right there? No communication, instantaneous communication networks. Everything takes a couple of days that you have to coordinate too many people across to greater distances. And so instead of trying to do that, why don't we just some segment of the population in each state representing the people as best as they can choose, is some electors who then are given the power to decide who the president's going to be in.
This kind of argument goes on for quite a few days and they can't really come to a decision. It's like the bagel's, right?
They kind of just postpone it. They say, well, we have other things to worry about. We don't want to waste the whole summer of this and the table.
The issue I do I do think it's important to emphasize the fact that people were not drinking water basically at all. Right, right, right.
Whiskey and cider. We're sort of like the beverage of choice for most people.
And also the kids are trying to sell.
It is at the end of August as all of this is wrapping up. And they really needed to figure out how to elect the president, that they turned the issue over to a committee, a committee on what they call postpone parts, everything. We couldn't they couldn't figure out if out of this committee to the Electoral College comes from.
So it's basically Charlie work, right? It's like we don't want to do this. Right. Right. Yeah.
And again, useful backdrop here. It's hot. They're drunk. Yeah. They're all away from their wives and they're not happy about that.
Do they have wigs on are they wearing wigs like to work.
Some of the older members probably are wigs in the seventies and eighties, sort of like wide lapels in the two thousand thing that people didn't do it much anymore.
So there are some old drunk, sweaty wigs in there. Right? Some some folks are worried about their slave is running away.
She's a. People just want to go home and the solution they come up with is splitting the difference, instead of trying to mandate how the electors are chosen, they just say each legislature of each state will determine how they're going to pick their electors. The electors are chosen.
The electors would meet the cast, their ballots and their respective state capitals. On the same date, every electorate cast two votes, one of which had to be for an inhabitant of state other than their own.
Oh, it's like Eurovision. So they prevent people from voting for themselves.
Yes, OK, the vote should be tallied in Congress. The expectation at the time was that most of the time no one would ever be able to be able to get a majority of electoral votes. And so most likely to just go to the House of Representatives.
And besides and this is a very important point, the first step is going to be George Washington anyway. So, like, who cares, right?
I mean, it cannot be overstated how much George Washington being at the convention, not really taking part, but presiding over it, becoming the model for the president as they envisioned it, got them through the process of designing how they're going to elect the president because everyone just assumed it's like, well, obviously Washington's going to be the guy.
So we don't have to worry too much about it.
Right. And they're going to like it. And then in 16 years or whatever, then we'll worry about it. Then I guess pretty much.
I mean, so much. I mean, if you if you if you look at the Constitution, if you look at the clauses, we don't really think about any more. Are there like the clause that says, you know, the Congress can't pass a law banning the transatlantic slave trade until for 20 years?
A bunch of stuff like that all represents a kind of listen, we'll just push it off for a bit and figure it out then, like me with my little hello fresh meals.
I mean, to me, all of this points to how it needs to be easier to amend constitutions generally, because oftentimes things do get written down in the midst of like very human negotiations. Right. Things end up in marriage contracts.
Everyone's got seiter headaches for 30 years. Yeah.
And like you figure, we'll just write it down for now and we'll revisit it. But then by the time you revisit it, 10, 20, however many years later, everyone has forgotten the context in which it was written down. And so what gets written down is sort of like this almost biblical text. Right? You forget that like no, it was pretty like everything is contingent, whether it's spoken or written. It's not necessarily as deliberative as it seems when it's in black and white on a piece of paper.
It's a refrigerator. The Constitution is a refrigerator. You can't just keep putting baking soda in.
And yes, you're after the after the constitution is drafted and they put it to specifically convene ratification conventions in every state to get it ratified. There's an intentional effort to make the things seem bigger than it might actually be. Everyone who took notes, which was Madison and a few others, kind of lock up their notes only to be kind of revealed after their death because they just don't want people to see how much horse trading and kind of ordinary politics was involved in the.
Is this comparable to those scenes in Lincoln where it's just like James Spader running around, like sweating, bribing people for votes like James Spader? I'm on your side. This corruption not as nakedly corrupt, but, you know, it's all pretty gross nonetheless.
But everyone's like, I don't want history to know that I'm a gross, sweaty James Spader. And it's like, no, history has to know you're a gross, sweaty James Spader or else they're all going to take this way too seriously.
Yeah, everything. One additional myth of the myth number two about the Electoral College is that it was designed to be either to enhance the power of slave states.
And, you know, one way to debunk that myth is just to say that what we can see, that it wasn't really designed at all, it was kind of haphazardly thrown together, was a kludge.
But the other thing to say about that is it although it does reflect a true thing, which is that because the Electoral College is based off of House representation, it ends up giving this bonus to candidates who have the support of the slave south, which ends up meaning that like the first 12 presidents are slave owners from the south. Well, I guess except Adams, Adams and Quincy Adams are all more or less slaveholders, right.
The citizens are always popping up and founding fathers going, discourse going, except me. It's like, OK, guys, we've got to make a visit to his sweetie. Sit down.
And so the extent to which the Electoral College benefits slave states is sort of incidental result of just kind of the way representation was designed. You know, everyone those are the three fifths compromises.
And there's like a lot there's a bunch of myths about the people. That compromise is what the three fifths compromise is.
Is it kind of it reflects ideas about what representation actually was the right now in twenty twenty, when we think representation, we think people one. Person one. The vote. That's why we find many of us find Electoral College so offensive, because it is basing representation on something that's not simply tied to people. Yeah. Then representation included things like, well, that it was it was considered a normal thing if you're designing representation to want to represent the relative wealth of a different different parts of a country.
So when they're debating representation for the Senate and the House, Madison, who designed the plan once proportional representation by people, he is a slave owner.
This would benefit him.
But also he's sort of arguing from kind of like a democratic legitimacy thing that the government doesn't represent states represents people. And so why would you represent states in the federal government? The states have their own representation.
They can do whatever they want with the national government, should represent the people of the country, a bunch of small state delegates, small state by population that necessarily by geographic size say, hey, under the articles we could veto whatever we wanted. We're not going to give that up without a fight. If you don't give us some version of that power, we just will quit this entire shebang and go home and you will get anything you want.
The equal state representation in the Senate, every state, every state gets the same number of senators, regardless of population, is a compromise to this desire to retain some features of the articles.
But once you do that, once you have equal state representation in the Senate, meaning there are no distinctions matter in terms of who gets what, then in the House, distinctions have to matter if distinctions are going to matter. Several of the state's wealthy states like Massachusetts, as well as wealthy states like South Carolina, say, well, there has to be some way to represent our wealth. And the southern states say in that for us has to be our slaves.
If we're going to represent wealth, it would be unfair to not represent our slaves well.
So it's like a version of I'm a factory owner. Yes. Each of my factories, every dollar I've invested in them should count as a vote. Right.
The other thing to consider here is that often when we kind of talk about slavery in the 18th century, we kind of blur the line in slavery than in slavery to the 30s or 40s and 50s.
And our image of slavery or popular movement is very much from that latter period, the big plantations, kind of the southern gentry. That's very 1848 in 50 years. But slavery at the time of the writing of the Constitution, it was an important industry.
It was like aerospace in Washington or medical devices in Massachusetts or meatpacking in the Midwest, like it was a major economic driver for the South, but also for the North as well. But it wasn't yet the kind of all powerful institution that would become right.
It wasn't so powerful and influential that people were ruling out the end of slavery altogether.
The reason why, part of the reason why there aren't that there was nothing against slavery in the Constitution that many of these guys you thought it would die out, but it was like it was obviously not going to be profitable for very much longer.
And is it then made profitable by the cotton gin being invented? Is that how that gets extended?
Yes, it's sort of part of the story is that believing that slavery wasn't long for the world, they include a bunch of protections for slavery and some of that like thinking that like, oh, this is not going to matter in 30 years and then it matters.
Right. The Constitution creates a much more powerful government. It carves out slavery from the areas touched by that government. And then all of a sudden, slavery becomes much bigger and more lucrative than it had ever been before. But it turns out they built this government that doesn't let them do anything about it. It almost feels like a cancer in the whole system, unintentionally. So is there the sense of like, let's protect the poor slavery and disagree with these legal protections?
Because it's not long for this world anyway, like steel?
It's kind of we need this we want this government. This is important to us via the slave owners want the representation. We should give it to them. They were looking for like a formula.
And it turned out that a couple of years before and the confederation Congress, they were debating a fair formula for distributing a tax burden, never became law because of the high barasch it up. But they got through this debate and they came to it. They came to at least an agreement. The formula was in the formula they agreed to was that for taxation purposes, slaves should be worth three fifths of a of a regular citizen. And they were like, well, let's just use that formula again.
We already agreed to it. That's if it's compromise, then it's going to be your presentation. The House is going to be represented by population and that should also include some representation of wealth in the South. That means they're slaves. And so they get to have three fifths of their slaves counted. And then when they're designing the Electoral College, they say, well, the electoral electors are going to be based on House and Senate representation. And that kind of just carries through the slave and the slave state advantage or what would become the slave state advantage into this new system.
But it doesn't become an advantage until these underlying forces in the political economy of slavery pop up, right? If slavery had actually died off, it wouldn't have mattered. But because it grew, it mattered. So that's just that's the relation. If you like, records of slavery not created by not created to protect slavery, it kind of becomes an instrument of the protection of slavery.
This is like one of my favorite types of you're wrong about, because in my very cynical brain, I think of it as like all of these institutions are extant in America because of racism. And then you look back at the actual origins of a lot of these institutions and like, yes, because of racism, but also not necessarily in the form of racism that you mean.
Right. It's this thing where I guess the the popular it's because of slavery explanation attributes a level of intentionality. And like Villaine, which is emotionally satisfying.
Yes. But is it really how things how things work? Right. The slaveholders weren't necessarily thinking to themselves, I must entrench slavery with sort of a political horse trading.
Right. It was transactional rights. It's it's very transactional and it's all intended, I think.
I think that if you had told the delegates at the Constitutional Convention that three fifths compromise would end up giving the South kind of hammerlock on the presidency for 50 years, they might not have never done it right. They might have just got to find something else to do.
Right, because that's something I don't see them anticipating, because people because people don't anticipate the future when they make decisions like ever, because the future just doesn't generally seem real to people. And it's just like this is solving my problem right now. So, like, let's do it right now.
Yeah, right. We need a new government. We have these disagreements. Let's just figure out something that is minimally acceptable to everyone here.
We've all been drinking cider for 11 hours.
This wig itches like hell, like the state of my balls is not even begun to you know, it's just like.
Yes, Electoral College. Sure. So if one is it was designed with two was designed for slavery, myth three must be. Well, people didn't really complain about this. And the fact is that they complained about it constantly.
Everyone sort of recognized that the Electoral College just did not make any sense.
Yes. And lawmakers throughout the 19th century introduced amendment after amendment after amendment to get rid of it.
Yes. So why doesn't it die over the years? It's like so obvious that it doesn't work. So why do all of these amendments keep getting shot down?
If it's a bit too much to say the Electoral College was designed to protect slavery? It is certainly the case that the beneficiaries of slavery end up becoming kind of the fiercest opponents of Electoral College reform. Yeah, because it benefits them in the antebellum years. Some of these amendments being introduced. And then by the time you get to the 20th century, the solid south has emerged as sort of like a voting block. Jim Crow is more or less wiped out black voting in the entire South.
And so Southern Democrats kind of get the best of all worlds and that their black populations are legally, fully or constitutionally enfranchised but cannot actually vote. And so they get the bonus of representation for representation for the black people of their states and become this decisive bloc of lawmakers who, you know, you look at the southern lawmakers of that year and they're in Congress for 30, 40, 50 years because there's no way they can lose.
Right. So because they're black populations are counted in the redistricting, like in determining how many districts they get, they get all these extra seats. But then because those black people can't actually vote de facto, they get to fill those seats with whatever white people want at the time. Right, right. That's the mechanism.
That's the mechanism. If you if you look at voter registration rates in the South post nineteen hundred in some places, it's as little as four or five percent of voting age adults are actually registered to vote.
So it's not even it's not even that only white people are filling seats, choosing senators, filling government. It's a tiny minority of white people doing it, in fact.
And of course, in the south, like in a place like Mississippi, blacks are half the population. So, yeah, you're looking at sort of mass disenfranchisement on a level that I'm not quite sure people really appreciate.
But the upshot for the solid South is that, yeah, they get all this political power without having to worry about votes of people who might oppose them. Those solid South lawmakers block attempts to repeal the Electoral College throughout the early 20th century.
The worm begins to turn me in the nineteen sixties.
And I guess this is one thing critics of Electoral College opponents will say is that no one cared about this before Bush in 2000, which in some sense is like kind of true, because up until then there wasn't really much divergence between the popular vote tally.
Who won the Electoral College, so why would you care? It's actually OK to care about things after they produce bad outcomes. Like you didn't care about mass shootings before Columbine, like, well, yeah, Columbine was really bad.
So I care about mass shootings now. Also, it's OK to learn things. Yeah, I think it's fine.
Americans aren't actually allowed to grow, so I'm sorry.
But also people did care and they begin to care in the 1960s when there's this obviously big push for more democracy in the south and elsewhere.
And then in 1968, there is an election that nearly sends the whole election to the House. Richard Nixon, against Hubert Humphrey, against George Wallace, running as a third party. George Wallace ends up capturing most of the South because he doesn't get Tennessee in particular. He loses it by like 20 or 30 thousand votes. He doesn't get enough electoral votes to deprive Nixon, Humphrey of a majority of even having a chance of getting a majority.
But he comes so close that the entire political system basically freaks out. Everyone's like, wait a sec, this is the thing that could happen. There is no argument at the time. This is what the founders intended. This is what they they meant. And there is there is a national movement to get rid of the Electoral College. Big civil society organizations like the American Bar Association put out these like fake reports that are like that, basically arguing this is a ticking time bomb.
This is going to destroy American democracy if we let it. The House passes by an overwhelming majority, a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. And then it comes up in the Senate where but not for a filibuster from kind of a who's who of the southern segregationist Strom Thurman, John Stennett.
I mean, all all the worst people in American history.
Yeah. If not for a filibuster, they probably would have passed the Senate, too.
It fell I think it fell five votes short, which is infuriating because the filibuster is the same thing as the Electoral College, like something completely indefensible that is only in place because of Southern segregationists.
You also could say what the filibuster is. My impression is that it's like you just keep talking as long as you possibly can to like, stall things, which sounds very adult.
The filibuster is basically that it is a rule allowing unlimited debate filibuster, not in the Constitution, right?
You're right, Michael.
It's like the Electoral College, not something anyone necessarily designed. It is an accident. Aaron Burr is streamlining the rules of the Senate and notices that there's sort of a there's two rules that allow for cutting off debate. And he's like, we should just get rid of one of them. It turns out that through some mechanism, I understand getting rid of one of those rules allow for the possibility of unlimited debate.
But no one realize this until the eighteen thirty is. And then some senators realize that. And that's where the filibuster comes from.
So it's a loophole that arose through overenthusiastic editing, which is a great moral for overenthusiastic editors.
I mean, it's basically it allows a small number of senators to block legislation, which is not the way that it's supposed to work. Right. Like if you have a majority, you should be able to pass legislation and it just becomes a de facto supermajority requirement that now in the Senate, you can't pass anything without 60 votes, which is like not the way that countries are supposed to run.
It's like a political provision that fell off the back of a truck. Yes, there's this aphorism you'll find on the right, which is whenever you complain about these undemocratic things, people say, well, we're a republic, not a democracy. But even if you're going to grant granted, those two terms mean anything other than they're just like one's a Latin derived from other a Greek word for like rule by the people. It's also the case that the framers were very clear about this, that what they called the Republican principle was majority rule, that the thing that makes the American government distinct isn't like minority rule or like majoritarianism.
It's sort of overlapping systems of substantive representation by, you know, geographic units, by individual people, all geared towards creating as much deliberation as possible before decisions are made.
But once the deliberation happens, the expectation was that majority rules, if that wasn't the expectation, they wouldn't have read the Constitution in the first place, because the whole complaint with the articles was that majorities could not rule.
It's only been really in the last 20 years since the 1960s, a big electoral college has been this very pivotal thing for our politics and this this situation we have now where we kind of we dodged the bullet this time, but we may not in the next four years is that if you if your voters are in the right places, then you can win the presidency without winning a majority of votes. And I'll say, Michael, you said that this you know, this benefits rule states use.
The defense is of benefit small states, and I guess this would be myth number four is that it doesn't really do any of these things. Florida isn't a small state, right? Pennsylvania is in a small state.
These are gigantic states with lots of people. The small states of the country, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, no one gives a shit about who in presidential elections. Yeah. No one visits these states. No one thinks about them. No one spends money on them. It doesn't enhance the voices of small states.
Rural areas get even a bigger shaft. Right. Like half of California is just like farmland. Yeah, but no one cares about those voters.
I mean, this is like my central beef with the Electoral College that because I wrote an article about this this week, I was looking up the various numbers and one of them was that ninety six percent of campaign visits and more than 90 percent of campaign spending is in 12 states because we now de facto have this system where, like everyone knows, California is blue, Oregon's blue and Mississippi's red and Louisiana's red, etc. There's really no reason for Democrats or Republicans to campaign in those states because we all know what the outcome is going to be.
And as an Oregonian like, yeah, it's very weird to grow up knowing that, like, your vote just doesn't matter, like just a matter locally, which is great. But like nationally, like, yeah, it has never mattered.
And I kept thinking about this in this election cycle where at two separate presidential debates we were talking about fracking in Pennsylvania, which is like, I'm sure a very important issue to Pennsylvanians, but to debates.
You know, we didn't talk about wildfires in California. There's all kinds of issues in the South that we don't talk about. Like all we talk about are things that are going on, like issues that are important to people in swing states.
Millions of schoolchildren are going to school virtually right now. And for some reason, we did not talk about the fact that broadband has barely penetrated most of rural America. But I was told that the Electoral College would make sure that these issues got discussed.
But they don't because like, yeah, no one's going to go visit Kansas for a presidential election.
Also, one of my biggest things is that, like, we have this division in America between like urban America and rural America, which, of course, is a spectrum. Right. Because so many Americans live in suburbs or exurbs or somewhere on the spectrum between between these like fake sort of real America rural places and these sort of degraded urban inner city places like both of which are completely fake.
Obviously, at both ends of that spectrum, everyone lives in either Gotham or Smallville. Yeah, exactly. Like this is this is how political campaigns often play out. And it just drives me nuts that, you know, four out of five Americans live in cities like the vast majority of Americans live in cities. On some level, if you got rid of the Electoral College and you actually had to win the popular vote, you would have a completely, I think, a completely different Republican Party, because right now they have no policies that apply that are even relevant to people that live in cities, because why would they they're losing all the cities anyway.
War on Christmas is very relevant to my life, my time. Exactly. So if all of a sudden you got rid of the Electoral College, we would have presidential campaigns that would actually have to talk to all Americans.
They could never campaign anymore. Right. Because you can't go to all the states you would die like they're already running themselves ragged for like a year and a half would actually be interesting thinking about what presidential campaigns would.
Yeah. Like, what would they look like? Like would they only do rallies in whatever New York City, L.A., Houston?
I don't know. I mean, this is getting maybe like to zoomed out. But I honestly think that, like, the whole process of campaigning is fundamentally ridiculous. And I think that maybe we need to overhaul the entire thing and this whole. Yeah, like, don't you think that the whole campaigning process is silly? Yes, I agree.
I agree with you both very, very strongly. Like, I think that the Electoral College, it introduces all these distortions, big and small, and how we think about our country, how we think about our politics, how polished politicians campaign.
So, for example, I don't I don't think there would be only rallies in big metro areas. It's two things. The first is that nowhere is there very few places in the country that are truly politically uniform. Right. There are some census tracts are.
But we you're thinking in terms of cities and states, most places are at most 70 percent.
One party, the majority of places are around 60 or somewhere in between 60 40. Right. Sort of like either bare majorities or modest majorities in Mississippi. Right. Like 40 percent of people who live there routinely vote for Democrats in in Massachusetts, 40 percent of people who live there routinely vote with Republicans. That all pretty politically evenly mixed throughout the country. And so if you if you're only going to try to campaign in the big cities, what you would quickly find is two things.
First, there just aren't enough people even to you're just going to be mobilizing the other side as well.
And so I kind of think what happened in campaigns, it would be in video games. There's often like a maxcy, a maximum strategy. You're trying to maximize your minimum performance. You'd see something similar in presidential elections that people you wouldn't. People kind of cease trying to win states. What would matter is getting votes and votes are everywhere. An auditorium of 10000 people in the middle of Oklahoma is he is worth exactly the same as won elsewhere.
And so I think what we can to do is to look at the country and they would say, here are places where we win, where we are machsom. If we were to maximize our losing performance, who would be a run? Forty five, 40 percent of the country. So I think you see the campaigns. I mean, they do some rallies in the big cities kind of just for performer's sake, but they would devote all their time to all of these places around the country where it's possible to harvest a ton of votes without putting in that much effort.
If you were a Democrat, you would hold a bunch of campaign rallies in Birmingham, Alabama, which is a major metro area that's like mostly blue that connects you tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of votes and do so at a high return for your dollar.
And there's also I mean, people have pointed out since twenty sixteen that more people in raw numbers voted for Donald Trump in L.A. than in West Virginia. Right. Just because there are a lot of people in L.A. and there's not that many people in West Virginia, a lot of rich people in L.A..
Yeah. I mean, the other thing is it would it would eliminate the incentive to try to reduce the number of voters on the rolls. It doesn't matter whether someone actually wins Wisconsin, then why would you try to your incentive structure and move if you're a Republican, from trying to keep people off the rolls and finding every way you can to get the people who do vote for you to vote to to register as many of those as possible?
I mean, the other one of them, one of the pushback against not having a national popular vote is it would it would require some uniformity in national voting rules that you couldn't have felon disenfranchisement everywhere because that might make a decisive difference. You would have to have some some minimum standards, equal standards across the country for who can vote and how they can vote.
And they probably would not end up being as liberal as I would like, which is pretty much sort of like elections last two months.
Yeah, and there's no there's effectively no registration, but they would probably be, on average, much more permissive than they are now. Yeah, I also think people would just want to participate. This is the big thing for me, that in a national popular vote election, everyone knows their vote counts. Anyone's vote could be a decisive vote. Yeah, my one of my strong, very firm belief is that when we talk about why don't people vote for the fact that we ask that question and we don't ask the question, why is it that states make it so difficult for people to vote?
Like why? Why does our political system make it so burdensome to vote?
I do actually think that so much of the rhetoric around nonvoters is sort of assumes that people are deciding not to vote. And it feels to me like the number of people who sort of have the opportunity to vote and are choosing not to vote is a much smaller number than the people who just can't vote, especially this year.
Like there is this video that went viral on Twitter that was like people lined up to vote in New York City. It was over a minute of footage and the line was like a mile and a half or something like that. And it was like the people they were it's democracy. It's so great. And it was like, it's really great the people are doing this, but it really sucks that they have to go telling with this.
And if you can't spend an entire workday in a line like forget about it.
It does feel to me like some of the effort on sort of getting people ideologically to the point where they will vote is somewhat wasted in that it's like just getting the lines shorter would probably do a lot more to boost turnout or like we saw this year, all these mail in ballots.
You know, Washington State has universal mail in ballot. They mail you a ballot, the postage is prepaid. You sit at the kitchen table, you fill it out and you put it back in the post box and it takes like four minutes. I mean, it's just unbelievably luxurious. It's great.
I don't think people know they should vote like people. I mean, you know, it's like the question like, why don't people want to feed their children healthy foods? And it's like they do. It's just difficult. Totally.
Right. My my my general experience from being in political journalism for ten years is that people do actually want to they want to participate. They want to feel like they're good citizens. And we put everything possible in their way to make not feel like that.
Are you at all optimistic about any efforts to fix this now? Yes.
So I guess that's the next place that goes. Like what? You know, what does the prospect of reform look like right now? How do we fix that?
Jammal, fix it for us. So be the cleanest solution is just a constitutional amendment, right? Easy. It's the simplest thing.
But the Constitution is hard to amend.
The next best thing is to find some way to either get every state to distribute their Electoral College votes by proportional vote or some mechanism to assign them all to the winner of the popular vote. And that's that's of what some people are working on. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is an agreement that once a state passes it into law, once enough states equivalent to 270 electoral votes have signed the agreement.
Whoever wins the national popular vote, they all automatically give their electoral votes to that winner, right. The case of this is constitutional is simply that no one's, you know, legislatures can find their electoral whatever they want. It's not constitutional is that the courts have frowned on interstate compacts in this way, saying they're kind of an end run around Congress. So probably we would have to happen is not only for enough states to pass it, but for Congress to also just pass a law basically affirming it, saying we understand this is happening.
We think this is good.
Even that is pretty tough, pretty a pretty high bar. I kind of think that what's going to be what's going to do it. And I was hoping that would happen this year. But it's not going to. But it will happen eventually is when the big states start flipping.
So if Texas flips under the Electoral College, it basically becomes impossible for a Republican to win the presidency. Oh, really? If Texas flips, it's likely that Georgia is going to be blue as well. Sort of like states move like in that world.
It's just like not likely that Republicans are going to win the presidency. I would imagine that if you were a Texas Republican, you would be looking for ways to offset that effect.
So it finally becomes bipartisan.
A counterfactual is if in 2004, John Kerry almost became president, despite losing the majority of the popular vote because he almost won in Ohio, had that happen, you would have had two consecutive misfires affecting both parties the same way.
And that's just sort of that that is the recipe for reform, right? No one thinks they're going to benefit in the future. So let's just change the system. And right now, the problem is that one party believes very strongly that it will continue to benefit under the current system. And as long as that's true, then reform is effectively after constitutional reform is effectively off the table.
You have to get the vote out in Texas, like from an electoral standpoint in order to get rid of the very thing that you were trying to prove irrelevant.
Yeah, because the idea of flipping Texas would not exist if we just whoever won the popular vote became the president, because you wouldn't there wouldn't be states to flip.
You've got the country or you don't. Yeah, you would count. You would just count how many people voted for each person in each state and then you add them up and then somebody would win.
What a great concept. I love it because how I see that work well. And then I was rudely awakened and I'll even say this.
It's OK to be did not like something because it affects your political interests. I mean, sort of that's how these things work. Not everyone has like, pure objective opinions on stuff.
Yeah. As a as a is a left leaning person, I it makes me mad that left leaning people can persuade most of the country to support their candidate.
They can. It could not matter because of some, like, archaic rules that no one gave a shit about what they made. I also think this doesn't condemn Republicans to defeat. I think it's entirely possible for the Republican Party to win a national election this way. There's a Republican governor of Massachusetts right now. There's a Republican governor of Maryland. Republicans can win these electorates and win. We win the country. They just have to, like, work at it.
Well, we've we've never seen a popular vote campaign. I mean, this is the thing. It's like Republicans who say that it would be impossible for us to win. It's like, well, they've never actually campaign to win the popular vote.
I mean, I actually think you we have seen the popular vote campaign. I think Bush's 2004 campaign was a popular vote campaign.
Bush was self-conscious about the fact that he didn't win the popular vote in 2000 and they campaigned in a way to try to build a majority. Right. Like they they appeal to black voters in the basis of religion. They appeal to Hispanic voters on the basis of religion. They the ownership society, which suddenly everyone's forgotten now, but was like a major plank of the Bush campaign strategy, which said, we're going to help everyone who wants a home to buy one.
It was part of an explicit effort to build a political majority.
That's what Karl Rove was talking about, will have the permanent Republican majority, not the permanent Republican minority, that wins just by happenstance of the rules.
They tried to win gay voters by trying to amend the Constitution so we couldn't marry the people we like. So I also appreciate that I went great. Right. I feel appealed to.
And this is the thing that I think liberals should take heed of that popular vote election isn't necessarily going to be one that we're going to like to see in terms of the kinds of messages being put out there, because as we've just seen with the with the outgoing president, there are very ugly messages that can attract large numbers of people.
Yeah, well, we just got to call him outgoing. That's the first time that happens. And I'm really happy.
It feels very weird to me, like I haven't been paying a ton of attention, just me stressing out over it's not going to do anything. So just let me live my life and I'll check in when there's news.
I was picking up tacos for lunch for us and I was like, hey, Trump is not going to be the president anymore. He's a colony so much in my brain for the past four years. I know.
My God, I can tweet about Brexit again. I'm really happy. That is truly what you love. Most people will get mad at me when I tweet about movies.
Yes. They won't be like real stuff is happening to know why.
Do you care what Michael Clayton? Because Michael Clayton fucking whip. That's why I care.
Can't wait do. Yeah, and I will continue to tweet about SA and the trouble myself with letting an old insane sadist presence into my home.
I'm just going to watch movies about Sarah's tweets will be no different. Just for the record, there will continue to tweet as normal. I mean, last thing I'll say, I mean, I do think that there's a tendency for the media to sort of frame this Electoral College thing as sort of the debate over the Electoral College. You know, Democrats want to get rid of it because then they would win more and Republicans want to keep it because then they would win more.
And I always hate whenever we get issues like this into this partisan, like everyone's acting for their own advantage and ignore the merits of the case, which is that in every country, the person who wins the most votes gets to have the power. Like this is a pretty fundamental principle of democracy. I don't think that we can just say that, like Democrats are acting in self interest and Republicans are acting in self interest without noting that like one of them is basically correct and in line with every other advanced democracy.
And the other isn't like that shouldn't just be like an asterisk.
Mike, I think acknowledging that is risking and giving up our bipartisanship.
So we just have to continue pretending that each of these two parties are both equally having of good ideas, even though one of them has been hollowed out by capitalism to a far greater extent than the other.
I don't know. America is a weird country, and that's my takeaway.
Yeah, dude, what I learned. I think this is very much right that democracy isn't just majority rule like it is dilatation.
It is protection of minority rights. It is all these things.
But what we've done, those things, it should just be whoever persuades the most people just to win. And in a future election, the other side persuades more people they should get to do what they want to do, too. I mean, we talked a bit about the filibuster and in this conversation with abolishing the filibuster, it's always what happens when Republicans get into power. And my answer is always, listen, if the Republican Party persuades a majority of the public to give them hand them uncontested power in Washington and they want to pass an agenda, then they should be able to do it.
And if it fucks up, then we evaluate them. We say, oh, that was bad. I mean, both them out of office. It doesn't work to kind of devices backstops to keep the the people we don't like from winning office, from doing anything. It always redound to the benefit of those who just want Stacie's who don't like democracy. Right.
And you also you can't as a voter assess the performance of a political party if that political party only gets to do some portion of its agenda. And it's not clear to you why some of that agenda is not going into place. I mean, I think when you have sort of fewer of these checks and balances or you make it much more clear that a party can actually enact its agenda, people find out what their actual fucking agenda is and that people vote them out of office and they have to have a less shitty agenda.
I mean, part of the reason why Republicans get away with having these wildly unpopular policies is that it's not quite clear from Congress like who's actually doing what.
Might Trump going to the Supreme Court to be like, hello? Yeah, I'm upset. I'm contesting this and it's like no one knows what window to go to. Yeah, like, I do think it would be better for both parties to be able to do the things that they claim to want to do and then we can evaluate them based on that based instead of evaluating that based on how they perform and the equivalent of like a horrible family system that we all have to watch them in.
Yeah, it might even make them a little more honest. Yeah. And nicer. You know, for the last two years, Republicans ran on abolishing Obamacare. They never did it. And that's because they come out in the back of their minds that like they would never be in a position to do it.
But if all of a sudden there is the expectation that, yeah, what you campaigned on, you're you're going to have the ability to do right, then maybe you won't campaign on crazy things anymore. Yeah.
Or Americans could look around and be like, wait a minute, my health care hasn't gotten better and you've been in office for four years. Fuck you. Without Republicans having this. Excuse it. Like all the Democrats won't let us pass what we want to pass or whatever.
For a minute I thought you're about to do. It makes an impression, just like your point. But we're going to do well.
Thank you so much for coming on to tell us about this. Jamal, this has been great.
Oh, my pleasure. This was a lot of fun. Thank you for having me. Thank you for letting me rant about James Madison. We love it. We love Rantanen.
I love to rant about problematic founding father faves. And yes. Yeah. Thank you for being so generous with your time on this historic day to explain this very wonky subject, because I really loved it and I feel empowered by knowledge. And I also am reminded of a quote from Reversal of Fortune, which I love, which is where Jeremy Irons playing a very posh character who seems guilty and apparently maybe isn't, says his lawyer, Alan Dershowitz. Got to be so roundly disgraced as he is now.
Let the chips fall where they may. And Alan Dershowitz says that's what an innocent man would say, which is like if you're saying let's have more democracy, let's let the chips fall where they may then like, that's. Fundamentally an expression of like not being afraid of what will happen if people are allowed to vote in a real way, which is like a very exciting way to relate to the concept of government. Right. I feel like this is my favorite.
You're wrong about which is where the thing that America thinks it's afraid of is not what it's afraid of.
Oh, that is that is really good. If you'll let me one last pronouncement. Yeah. The things that people point to as the horrible outcomes of democracy in American history, they point to Jim Crow and they point to Japanese internment.
They pointed these things in each situation. The country wasn't fully democratic. Jim Crow wasn't imposed by a Democratic majority, was imposed by an empowered minority. The worst aspects of American history have always come at the hands of a minority empowered by institutions that block full democratic expression. And I don't think you can make a case that democracy has been a problem. The country, I think, becomes the problem the country has had from its beginning is the lack of democracy.
That's very insightful and it makes me even more interested in what you have to say about Michael Clayton.