Are Democrats Wasting Their Time Taking On the Electoral College?

Long-shot efforts to stop Donald Trump or change the election system risk taking up time and energy with little to show at the end.

Barbara Boxer (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

As Donald Trump’s inauguration draws near, Democrats are channeling time and energy into long-shot political fights focused on the Electoral College. But while their efforts have generated media attention, they ultimately seem unlikely to win back the power liberals lost in the presidential election.

A group of Democratic electors are leading the charge for an Electoral College revolt by attempting to convince electors to deny Trump the White House when they vote for president later this month. At least one Republican elector has also publicly advocated for his colleagues to reject Trump: “I believe electors should unify behind a Republican alternative,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Monday.

At the same time, high-profile Democrats are calling for an end to the Electoral College entirely. That includes some congressional lawmakers. Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California has introduced legislation to abolish the Electoral College by amending the Constitution, while a number of House Democrats met earlier this week at a forum focused on potential reforms to the institution. “The Electoral College seems to be getting more disconnected from the popular vote,” Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York said at the Capitol Hill event. “It’s time we got rid of the distorting influence of the Electoral College on the popular will,” he added.

The Electoral College is a convenient target. Before a presidential election takes place, political parties in each state select a slate of electors that’s equal in number to the state’s representation in the House and Senate. In nearly every state, electors for the party whose candidate wins the popular vote in that state then meet on December 19 to vote for president. And they typically vote for whichever candidate won that in-state popular vote. As it stands, Hillary Clinton has amassed a popular-vote lead of more than 2.6 million votes over Trump.

But efforts to abolish the Electoral College or use it as a mechanism to stop Trump’s election are unlikely to succeed in the near term. One obstacle is a Republican-controlled Congress. If no presidential candidate secures 270 votes when the electors meet this month, the House would have the power to elect the president, and there’s little evidence they’d pick someone other than Trump. Congressional Republicans also have little incentive to consider a constitutional amendment to end the Electoral College in light of the results of the election.

“There is very little indication that the political will currently exists for either of these scenarios to come to pass,” said Edward Foley, an election-law expert at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. “For the Electoral College to repudiate Trump, there would have to be a groundswell of Republicans turning against Trump that we have not seen happen within the party. As for abolishing the Electoral College, it’s extraordinarily difficult to amend the Constitution, and despite the fact that a majority of Americans support the idea, we have never been able to pass an amendment to achieve that.”

Focusing attention on the mismatch between the popular vote and the outcome of the presidential election allows Democrats to make the case that Trump does not have a mandate from the American public. But that doesn’t mean it’s good political strategy for Democrats to take aim at the Electoral College now.

To start, Democrats may feel increasingly demoralized if they attempt to channel their post-election angst into political causes they ultimately fail to win. And if Democrats blame the Electoral College for their loss, that could distract the party from the task of building up support in the rural counties and other parts of the country where Democrats struggled to win votes in the 2016 election. It may also be more difficult for Democrats to win over Trump voters in the future if his supporters interpret efforts to stop him from taking office, or do away with the Electoral College, as evidence of unfair backlash against their preferred candidate.

On top of that, it might be harder for Democrats to credibly argue that Trump poses a threat to democratic institutions if they themselves appear willing to subvert or do away with one of those institutions—particularly if liberal lawmakers face accusations from Republicans that they are doing so for partisan gain.

“Defending values, whether it’s protocol, precedent, or legal, we have to be consistent,” Representative Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, said in an interview. Though he is not currently advocating for any specific changes to the Electoral College, Grijalva thinks it’s important to highlight Clinton’s popular-vote victory, and consider whether potential reforms to the Electoral College might make sense. “I’m concerned the popular vote doesn’t carry the weight that it should, even in a loss,” he said. But he also cautioned that “you have to be very careful to not accept the premise that because it’s Trump for president therefore everything is open game.”

Still, long odds and political risk won’t dissuade liberals hoping that the Electoral College will deliver an 11th-hour rebuke of Trump. Two Colorado Democratic electors filed a lawsuit on Tuesday contesting state law that requires them to back the winner of the state’s popular vote as part of their fight to deny Trump the White House. Larry Lessig, a law professor and activist who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, also launched an initiative called the Electors Trust. The project is intended to “give electors free and confidential legal service,” according to a description Lessig wrote on Medium.

In an interview, Lessig rejected the idea that activism focused on the Electoral College will waste resources on the political left. “I don’t think that Democrats are squandering an opportunity if they focus their energy on achieving what should be the core principle of our democracy, which is that we’re all equal and that our votes should count equally,” he said.

There isn’t much time left until the Electoral College casts its votes for president, leaving Democrats and anti-Trump activists with a narrow window to influence the outcome of the election. In the meantime, the party and its followers will have to be careful not to chase politically unrealistic goals at the exclusion of more feasible campaigns to rebuild their political power. If the last-ditch effort to block Trump from the presidency fails, Democrats will need to be ready to counter the Republican agenda, and time is running out to prepare a potentially enduring and effective strategy.