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Electoral College 'Not Carved In Stone:' Author Advocates Rethinking How We Vote

Mar 18, 2020
Originally published on March 20, 2020 7:52 am

The U.S. has had two recent presidential elections in which the winner of the popular vote — Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 — ultimately lost to the challenger for the seat.

That's because the U.S. has an Electoral College — each state gets a number of votes (by representative electors) in the Electoral College that's proportional to its population. And 48 of the 50 states (Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions) have been awarding those electoral votes on a winner-takes-all basis.

But New York Times journalist Jesse Wegman says it doesn't have to be that way: "The way the Electoral College operates today is not carved in stone," he says. "The winner-take-all rule is really just a state invention. There's nothing keeping us from changing it to a different method."

In his new book, Let the People Pick the President, Wegman makes a case for abolishing the Electoral College. He notes that the winner-takes-all model means that millions of voters become irrelevant to a presidential election that is often decided by voters in key "battleground" states.

"There are millions of Republicans in 'blue' California and there are millions of Democrats in 'red' Texas," he says. "All of those people just disappear when it's time to actually cast the electoral votes, because those states use winner-take-all."

Wegman notes that there have been more than 700 attempts to reform or abolish the Electoral College since its inception. Recently, states began working together to create the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would award the Electoral College votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote.

"If you're okay with the way the Electoral College works right now, which is with a statewide winner-take-all rule in almost all states, I just don't see what the argument is against using the winner-take-all rule, but for the whole country," Wegman says.


Interview highlights

On how the Electoral College works

Here are the basics: The Electoral College in the Constitution is very simple. It just says each state gets a number of electors equal to its representation in Congress. So that means the number of House of Representatives members that that state has [plus] two senators. So take a state like Wyoming. ... They get one House member and they have two senators. One plus two is three. So Wyoming gets three electoral votes. No state can get fewer than three electoral votes. Then you go all the way up to California, which has 53 members in the House, plus its two senators. So it has 55 electoral votes.

Beyond that, the states make all the decisions. They decide how those electors are going to be chosen, how they're going to be awarded. And that's what we're doing on Election Day, is we are picking the electors and deciding how they're going to be awarded to the candidates. So, for example, in 2016 in New York, all the voters come out, they vote, and whichever candidate wins the popular votes in the state, all of the electors for that candidate go to Albany, the state capital, in December to cast the actual votes to elect the president. And that's replicated in every state in the country, as I said, except for two, Maine and Nebraska.

On how the idea of an "interstate compact" agreed upon by states works

The whole idea of this interstate compact is based on the fact that the Constitution gives the states themselves near total authority to decide how to award their electors to the candidates. A state can, as we see today in 48 states, give all of their electors to the candidate who wins the most votes in their state. They can allocate them by congressional district, as two states — Maine and Nebraska — do. The governor, him or herself, could personally decide whom to give the electors to. The state lawmakers could decide to do this.

All of these methods were contemplated at the founding. All of them have actually been used throughout American history. And what the compact does is it uses that power. But in a different way, which is to say, rather than states giving their presidential electors to the candidate who wins the most votes in that state, they instead agree by compact — which is basically a contract among states — to award all of their electors to the candidate who wins the most popular votes in the entire country. And the compact kicks in once states representing a majority of electors — 270 — which is the number that you need to become president, sign onto it. So you put those two things together and it's a very simple calculus, which is the candidate who wins the most votes in the country automatically becomes the president.

On the states who have signed onto the compact so far

I think what would surprise a lot of people is to know that this compact itself, the effort itself and the response to it has been remarkably bipartisan. - Jesse Wegman

Fifteen states right now are member states of this compact, plus the District of Columbia for a total of 196 electoral votes. ... All of these states were controlled by Democrats when they passed the compact. They started with Maryland in 2007 and [in] 2019 we got, I think, a wave of new states joining as Democrats won back statehouses and governorships following the 2018 midterms.

It's not surprising on one level, because Democrats are the party that lost both in 2000 and 2016, you know, lost, even though winning the popular vote. So you can understand the frustration. But I think what would surprise a lot of people is to know that this compact itself, the effort itself and the response to it has been remarkably bipartisan. ... It's a bipartisan group of people. It's Republicans, some Trump-supporting Republicans as well as some very liberal Democrats. They've been working together for more than a decade on this. And they've actually won over a lot of Republican lawmakers in a lot of states. In fact, the compact has passed Republican-led chambers in four different states.

What ended up happening was the 2016 election. Right before that election, you had three states that are led by Republicans, what we would call "red" states, that were on the verge of passing this compact and joining it along with the "blue" states that are currently members. As soon as the 2016 election happened and people realized the sort of the repartisaning of the Electoral College happened. It was off the table.

The winner-take-all rule that all these states use today and that I think most Americans assume is just the way the Electoral College works is purely state-designed. It's purely extra-constitutional. States adopt it for one very specific reason, which is it gives them extra clout in the election. - Jesse Wegman

On how winner-take-all is not written into the Constitution

This is what's fascinating. It's nowhere in the Constitution. None of this is in the Constitution except for the number of electors that each state gets. They decide everything after that fact. So the winner-take-all rule that all these states use today and that. I think, most Americans assume is just the way the Electoral College works, is purely state-designed. It's purely extra-constitutional. States adopt it for one very specific reason, which is it gives them extra clout in the election.

On the problem with winner-take-all states being battleground states

That's the fundamental problem here, which is that when you use a winner-take-all system statewide, most states are going to fall into what we call the safe category, which is they are polling far enough in favor of one candidate or the other that nobody has to pay attention to them. Take California: It's right now a very solidly Democratic state. You know that California is going to cast more votes for the Democrat than for the Republican. Texas, same in the other direction. The vast majority of states fall into that category right now.

That leaves us with roughly 10 to 12 states each year, each presidential election year, that you call battleground states. And those are states where the outcome is too close to predict in advance. And that means that the candidates spend essentially all of their time, all of their money, put all of their focus on those states. And really, it's fewer this year than 10 or 12. I would say it's six, maybe seven at most. And we know which they are: Wisconsin; Pennsylvania; Michigan; Arizona; North Carolina and Florida. Maybe we could add in one or two more, New Hampshire. Basically, those states are the states that are going to decide the election, because you can allocate all the rest of the electors in advance. And that's just fundamentally at odds with this idea that we're holding a national election that should be decided by all the people being treated equal by the candidates.

On how the Electoral College disproportionately affects voters of color

In the South right now, millions and millions of votes by black citizens basically don't count for anything, because white citizens in that state are enough of a majority to always ... win all of the electors in those states. So black voters in the South who vote for Democrats — which means virtually all blacks right now — are essentially invisible in every presidential election. So you see these patterns replicating themselves throughout our history. The people who stopped the popular vote amendment in the late 1960s were Southern segregationists. Some of the people who prevented us from getting to a popular vote in the founding of the country were slave holders. Again and again, the pattern repeats itself.

On why abolishing the Electoral College would lead to more moderate politics

When candidates run for president now, they really only have to worry about the interests of small numbers of voters. So, for example, what do you know people in Ohio want, or what do people in Florida or Wisconsin want? I think that leads to candidates who are naturally going to be more extreme, more divisive. They don't need to worry about what most voters in America want. You saw that in 2016 with Donald Trump. When you have to appeal to the vast majority of voters, you have your policies are going to, by nature, become more moderate, become more in the middle of where most Americans are. I think most Americans do not want extreme policies. They want mainstream policies. And if you are appealing to them, they are going to vote for a candidate who advances those rather than for the candidate out on the fringes.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. There's so many uncertainties now surrounding the presidential election, including how and when people are going to vote in the primaries. We're going to look at a long-term source of controversy surrounding presidential elections - the Electoral College.

We've had two recent elections in which the winner of the popular vote - Al Gore and Hillary Clinton - lost in the Electoral College. Did you know there have been about 700 attempts to reform or abolish the Electoral College?

My guest Jesse Wegman has written a new book called "Let The People Pick The President: The Case For Abolishing The Electoral College." It explains how the Electoral College was written into the Constitution, the rationale for it, court cases surrounding it, how most states became winner-take-all, and why so many people consider the college outdated and unfair. Jesse Wegman is a member of the New York Times editorial board.

Jesse Wegman, thank you for coming to FRESH AIR - and I literally mean, thank you for coming to a studio so that we could speak with you. I really appreciate it.

I just want to start by asking, how are you in this new world that we are living in?

JESSE WEGMAN: I think I'm pretty nervous. I haven't - I don't think I've been calm for the last week or so. I have two young children. I have elderly parents and in-laws and uncles and aunts, and I'm really thinking about all of them all the time. And it's a scary and uncertain time.

GROSS: And how are you dealing with all the anxiety that you just referred to?

WEGMAN: Preparing for talking to you.

(LAUGHTER)

WEGMAN: Doing my job at the editorial board, and just trying to help the girls, in particular, get along as though this is normal - or at least not frightening.

GROSS: So focusing on work and things like that is a nice distraction from just worry. (Laughter) Just...

WEGMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Fixating on worry.

WEGMAN: It's the - right.

GROSS: OK. So let's get to the Electoral College. Trump did not win the popular vote, and a lot of people have lost faith in the Electoral College system.

The key to Trump's win was in three states. And as you point out, in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin combined, Trump only won by 78,000 votes in those three states combined, but it's as if he won every vote in all three states.

WEGMAN: It's the fundamental problem of the Electoral College as it functions today, which is the state winner-take-all rule. And that's the rule that 48 states, including the three you just mentioned - Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan - use to award their electors.

And the way it works is exactly how it sounds. The person - the candidate who wins the most votes in the state, wins all of that state's presidential electors. It doesn't matter if they win by a million votes, a thousand votes or a single vote. They win all of that state's electors.

And that's how you see these sort of massive distortions in the outcome, where the difference between what the popular vote is and the difference between the electoral vote can be so vast.

GROSS: Yes because Hillary Clinton had 3 million more votes than Trump did, if you just look at it vote-by-vote, nationally.

WEGMAN: I mean, that's - (laughter). Yeah. There's not much more to say. She won the popular vote.

People who are defending the college or defending Donald Trump like to say, oh well, she just got those votes from California. And I like to respond, well, yeah. And if you didn't count my legs, I would only weigh 150 pounds.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WEGMAN: I mean, (laughter) it's just such a weird way of thinking about the United States, that suddenly you can lop off this state or this region and say, well, if you don't count those voters, Trump won.

Well, sure. If you don't count a swath of, you know, the center of the country that is almost equal in population to California, Trump also, you know, loses several million votes. It's just a bizarre way of thinking about an election for the office that covers the entire country.

GROSS: If it's one person, one vote - and our votes are supposed to be equal, what difference should it make which state you live in?

WEGMAN: I mean, that's the fundamental question. And, you know, this is not a new (laughter) - this is not a new issue that we've faced.

You know, the Supreme Court, in the early 1960s, took up the very question you just asked in a series of cases which we now know as the one person, one vote cases. And these were three cases - three or four cases, in 1963, 1964 - in which the court was facing a slightly different issue, which was what we call malapportionment. And that's sort of a cousin of gerrymandering. It's where lawmakers basically drew district lines in their state - and congressional lines and state legislative lines - to keep power within very small communities of people.

So especially in the South, it would be more rural and whiter communities, and keeping that power out of urban and more - areas with more minorities. And so what the court basically said was, once you start getting to a point where 50,000 people in one district have one representative, and 500,000 people in another district have one representative, you're violating the fundamental Republican ideal that the founders instituted in the Constitution.

Even though they didn't say one person, one vote - the basic idea was that everybody was going to be represented equally. So the Supreme Court ruled, in this series of cases, that that level of malapportionment - that level of discrepancy between some districts and others - was not acceptable. And within just a few years, the entire country came into line. And now all of our congressional districts and all of our state districts all fall within roughly 10% of each other in terms of population.

GROSS: But that logic has not been applied to the Electoral College, where one small state can have, you know, as much power as a larger state.

WEGMAN: It's a great point. The justices anticipated this, right? Because that's a great response to their ruling in those cases, which was to say, OK, well, if that's our principle - if that's our lodestar, is this one person, one vote ideal, look at the Electoral College.

The justices knew that was coming, and they brought it up themselves. And they said - I'm paraphrasing them here. They said, of course the Electoral College does not abide by this one person, one vote standard. However, there were historical reasons for doing this, and we can't disturb it.

Basically what they were saying is the Electoral College is constitutional because it's in the Constitution.

GROSS: So there's a way around the system that we have now, without having to change the Constitution. And that's a system that you write about in your book, which is a new compact that would be agreed to by states. Would you explain what that compact is?

WEGMAN: Sure. The whole idea of this interstate compact is based on the fact that the Constitution gives the states themselves near-total authority to decide how to award their electors to the candidates.

A state can - as we see today in 48 states - give all of their electors to the candidate who wins the most votes in their state. They can allocate them by congressional district, as two states - Maine and Nebraska - do. The governor, him or herself, could personally decide whom to give the electors to. The state lawmakers could decide to do this.

All of these methods were contemplated at the founding. All of them have actually been used throughout American history. And what the compact does is it uses that power but in a different way, which is to say, rather than states giving their presidential electors to the candidate who wins the most votes in that state, they instead agree by compact, which is basically a contract among states, to award all of their electors to the candidate who wins the most popular votes in the entire country.

And the compact kicks in once states representing a majority of electors, 270, which is the number that you need to become president, sign onto it. So you put those two things together and it's a very simple calculus, which is the candidate who wins the most votes in the country automatically becomes the president.

GROSS: So this would be a way of keeping the electoral system, but the electors would be just voting for whoever won the popular vote. So they would just be going along with the popular vote instead of affecting the outcome of who became president.

WEGMAN: Well, in fact, what's happening is the same thing happens today, which is that states don't have a sort of neutral body of electors who are waiting to be told by the state's voters which way to go. And I think that's actually a misapprehension that a lot of people have, which is that there's just one set of electors for each state. In fact, what happens is each candidate for the presidency brings along his or her own slate of electors.

So let's take a state like New York, which I think has 29 electors. Hillary Clinton in 2016 had 29 Democratic electors; Donald Trump in 2016 had 29 Republican electors. Whoever wins the statewide vote sends all of his or her electors to the state capital to cast their electoral votes on December 19 or December 18 or whatever the day is. So, in fact, there's no pressure on anybody to vote in some way that they're not prepared to vote. The Interstate Compact uses the electors in the same way that states use them today; it's just that they are being guided by the national vote rather than by the state vote.

So in New York, for example, which is a member of the compact, if the Democrat won more votes in the country, New York would send the Democratic electors to the state capital. They would be happy to cast that ballot. In contrast, if the Republican won more votes nationally, they would send the Republican electors. So it's basically the same as it happens today; it's just the measure of what determines which electors go is different.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jesse Wegman. He's the author of the new book "Let The People Pick The President: The Case For Abolishing The Electoral College." He's also a member of The New York Times editorial board. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "EGYPTIAN FANTASY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jesse Wegman, a member of The New York Times editorial board and author of the new book "Let The People Pick The President: The Case For Abolishing The Electoral College."

I guess I don't really understand how the electoral system works. Maybe you could just give us, like, a simple outline of what the electors are supposed to do.

WEGMAN: That's a great question. I think most of us have struggled to understand this and for most of American history, and I find myself struggling with a lot of it. Even through writing the book, there were things that I thought, oh, I must know this by now.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

WEGMAN: And then I had to go back and either read the Constitution or call an expert or call a historian and say, wait - I'm sorry; this is a really dumb question, but (laughter) - and that happened more times than I want to admit. The - here are the basics. The Electoral College in the Constitution is very simple. It just says each state gets a number of electors equal to its representation in Congress, so that means the number of House of Representatives members that that state has and two senators, right?

So take a state like Wyoming. They only have 550,000 or so residents so they get one House member and they have two senators. One plus two is three; so Wyoming gets three electoral votes. No state can get fewer than three electoral votes. Then you go all the way up to California, which has 53 members in the House, plus it's two senators. So it has 55 electoral votes. Beyond that, the states make all the decisions. They decide how those electors are going to be chosen, how they're going to be awarded. And that's what we're doing on Election Day, is we are picking the electors and deciding how they're going to be awarded to the candidates.

So for example, in 2016, in New York, all the voters come out, they vote, and whoever - whichever candidate wins the most votes, popular votes in the state, all of the electors for that candidate go to Albany, the state capital, in December to cast the actual votes to elect the president. And that's replicated in every state in the country, as I said, except for two - Maine and Nebraska.

GROSS: So the winner-takes-all approach - in all but two states, the winner of the popular vote for president in that state gets all of the electoral votes - was that written into the Constitution? Or is that something that happens somewhere along the way?

WEGMAN: This is what's fascinating - it's nowhere in the Constitution. None of this is in the Constitution, except for the number of electors that each state gets. They decide everything after that fact. So the winner-take-all rule that all these states use today and that, I think, most Americans assume is just the way the Electoral College works is purely state-designed. It's purely extraconstitutional. States adopt it for one very specific reason, which is it gives them extra clout in the election.

If they're saying to their - to one candidate or the other, we can give you all of our electors because, you know, we know that our state is majority Republican or majority Democratic, that's a very appealing thing to be able to do for your party. It's very hard to step back from that and say, let's award them proportionally, which is what a lot of people think would be a fairer method, because then you're basically - you're splitting the electors, and neither candidate is going to walk away with a huge jackpot.

So the winner-take-all rule is really just a state invention, and there's nothing keeping us from changing it to a different method, which is why this Interstate Compact is such an interesting idea because if you're OK with the way the Electoral College works right now, which is with a statewide winner-take-all rule in almost all states, I just don't see what the argument is against using the winner-take-all rule but for the whole country.

GROSS: So when did winner-take-all come in to be?

WEGMAN: So in the first election, in 1789, you had states trying out a whole bunch of different methods. Some states used what we all now assume is natural today, which is a popular vote for president. Of course, the people who could actually vote at that time was a small sliver of the society. But some states awarded their electors by congressional district; some states awarded their electors by the state lawmakers. This is something that's fascinating that I think most people don't realize. We have no constitutional right to vote for president. We have no constitutional right as citizens to play any role at all in the election of our president. We can't vote for the president directly. We can't even vote for electors if our state lawmakers say we can't.

So for example, in the first election, in 1789, multiple states chose to award their electors based on the choices of the lawmakers themselves. The public had no role at all in it. And over the first several decades of the country's history, states tried all different things. They were going back and forth between a popular vote for electors, state legislators selecting them, governors and legislatures together making the choice. It was a whole scramble of different ways to do it. And very quickly, the states figured out that winner-take-all, this statewide winner-take-all system that we now use today was going to be the most beneficial.

Thomas Jefferson very early on realized this after the disastrous election of 1800, when he said it would be folly and worse than folly not to adopt a winner-take-all rule when other states were doing it.

GROSS: The winners in winner-take-all right now are the battleground states.

WEGMAN: Exactly. And that's the fundamental problem here, which is that when you use a winner-take-all system, a statewide winner-take-all system, most states are going to fall into what we call the safe category, which is they are polling far enough in favor of one candidate or the other that nobody has to pay attention to them. Take California - it's right now a very solidly Democratic state. You know that Californians are going to cast more votes for the Democrat than for the Republican; Texas, same in the other direction. The vast majority of states fall into that category right now.

That leaves us with roughly 10 to 12 states each year, each presidential election year, that you call battleground states. And those are states where the outcome is too close to predict in advance, and that's - that means that the candidates spend essentially all of their time, all of their money, put all of their focus on those states. And really, it's fewer this year than 10 or 12; I would say it's, you know, six, maybe seven at most, and we know which they are - Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida. Maybe we could add in one or two more - New Hampshire.

Basically, those states are the states that are going to decide the election because you can allocate all the rest of the electors in advance, and that's just fundamentally at odds with this idea that we're holding a national election that should be decided by all the people being treated equal by the candidates.

GROSS: Because in red states and blue states, you can tell in advance who the electors are going to be.

WEGMAN: Exactly. And red states and blue states themselves, just - it's a visual artifact of the winner-take-all rule. It's such - it drives me crazy to look at that map because I think, I know that there are millions of Republicans in blue California, and there are millions of Democrats in red Texas, and I think all of those people just disappear when it's time to actually cast the electoral votes because those states use winner-take-all.

So, you know, when you look at these maps that actually drill down and show - represent voting as a - on a spectrum, on a color spectrum, the whole country looks purple. It's really a reminder that voters for both major parties live everywhere. And even in the states that are overwhelmingly for one candidate or another, you're still talking 25%, 30%, 35%, 40% casting ballots for the party that doesn't win. That's a lot of people - tens and tens of millions of Americans.

GROSS: My guest is Jesse Wegman, author of the new book "Let The People Pick The President: The Case For Abolishing The Electoral College." After a break, we'll talk about the influence of slave owners on the design of the Electoral College and what presidential campaigns might look like if we abolished the Electoral College. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "RUSH HOUR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jesse Wegman, author of the new book "Let The People Pick The President: The Case For Abolishing The Electoral College." He's a member of The New York Times editorial board. Earlier, we were talking about the winner-takes-all approach. With the exception of two states, the winner of the popular vote in each state gets all that state's electoral votes.

It's important to point out that the winner-takes-all approach is not written into the Constitution.

WEGMAN: That's the most important point, I think, for people to understand, which is the way the Electoral College operates today is not carved in stone; it is purely a function of state choices made at the state level by state lawmakers who are elected by their citizens. And once people, I think, get that understanding, you realize, oh, this whole system that we use is really contingent on a lot of local decision-making.

And that's where something like the Interstate Compact comes in, which is really saying, yes, this is a state-controlled system. Let the states continue to control it. We're just going to do something which certain states feel is more in their interest than the system that we have today, which is banding together to allocate our electors differently. And I just don't - I don't understand the criticism that if you're OK with the winner-take-all rule as it exists today, somehow it's a, quote, "end run" around the Constitution, which is what a lot of people like to say, to allocate your electors differently. Both of them are state-level decisions.

GROSS: So how many states have signed on to the compact so far?

WEGMAN: Fifteen states right now are member states of this compact, plus the District of Columbia, for a total of 196 electoral votes.

GROSS: And what's the pattern that holds these 15 states together?

WEGMAN: Well, all of these states were controlled by Democrats when they passed the compact. They started with Maryland in 2007. In 2019, we got, I think, a wave of new states joining as Democrats won back statehouses and governorships following the 2018 midterms. You know, it's not surprising on one level because Democrats are the party that lost both in 2000 and 2016, you know, lost even though winning the popular vote, so you can understand the frustration.

But I think what would surprise a lot of people is to know that this compact itself, the effort itself and the response to it has been remarkably bipartisan. So even though only Democratic-led states have currently passed the compact, what most people would call blue states, the compact authors and its advocates are all - it's a bipartisan group of people. It's Republicans. Some, you know, Trump-supporting Republicans as well as some very liberal Democrats, they've been working together for more than a decade on this. And they've actually won over a lot of Republican lawmakers in a lot of states. In fact, the compact has passed Republican-led chambers in four different states.

What ended up happening was the 2016 election (laughter). Right before that election, you had three states that are led by Republicans, what we would call red states, that were on the verge of passing this compact and joining it, along with the blue states that are currently members. As soon as the 2016 election happened and people realized, you know, the sort of the repartisan-izing (ph), I would say, of the Electoral College happened, it was off the table.

GROSS: Well, a lot of people think about Alexander Hamilton now because of the musical. Hamilton wrote that to ensure, quote, "the office of president will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications" and to entrust the choice to a select body of men in each state who would, quote, "possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations." So basically, Hamilton was saying, like, we can't trust ordinary people to actually vote for the president; like, we need to entrust the final decision to people much smarter than the average voter, who will use their discernment to make the final decision. And that was part of the rationale for the electoral college.

WEGMAN: It was. But let's be clear about what he was saying, which is the Founders didn't think that people couldn't make up their own minds or that they weren't smart enough to cast ballots. Remember - the Founders made the House of Representatives a popular vote body, right? That - those members were elected by the people directly, and that body they expected to be the most powerful of the government. Their concern at the time, one of their concerns, was that people would not know national candidates, candidates for national office, well enough to make an informed decision and, therefore, that they could be tricked by, say, a smooth-talker, a con artist, somebody who did not have their best interests at heart.

But to be clear, that was not a concern across the board. They also supported having regular citizens vote on whether or not to ratify the Constitution. They didn't leave that in state lawmakers' hands.

GROSS: But things have changed so much since the days of Hamilton. Like, if he didn't trust people on a regional level to know enough about national candidates, that was before TV and radio. That was before there were national newspapers. That was before the kind of press, you know, coverage that we have now. And so considering the availability of national news, considering the ability through transportation and media coverage to get national candidates' positions out to people all across the country, the Hamilton rationale doesn't really hold up anymore?

WEGMAN: Exactly. And it's what made the 2016 election and the effort after that election to, say, vindicate Hamilton's vision so ironic because nobody actually thinks that the Electoral College ever has or even should work that way. People are horrified at the notion that electors would just decide for themselves. These are people, as we've discussed, who are chosen by their local party leaders; they're not any - they're not people that anybody knows. They're not men with the requisite knowledge. They're just regular citizens or, in some cases, former politicians. Bill Clinton was a presidential elector in 2016. You just - the only rule is you can't be a current federal officeholder.

But that's - what's so funny about this is nobody actually wants the Electoral College to work this way, where these people that nobody's ever heard of could make a decision against the popular will.

GROSS: Let's take another short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jesse Wegman. He's a member of The New York Times editorial board and author of the new book "Let The People Pick The President: The Case For Abolishing The Electoral College." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jesse Wegman, a member of The New York Times editorial board and author of the new book "Let The People Pick The President: The Case For Abolishing The Electoral College." You know, when we're thinking about, like, the power of voters and how were - how candidates were elected in the early days of our democracy, the founders left it to state lawmakers to vote directly for U.S. senators. And it stayed that way till 1913. So voters didn't vote for their U.S. senators until 1913?

WEGMAN: Some states had begun to adopt direct voting for senators before that. This - 1913 is when it became constitutionalized, which is to say, when a constitutional amendment required direct voting for senators. But states from many decades before that had been either literally or effectively having the people decide who the senators were. And that really was a dramatic shift from what the founders envisioned.

The Senate was supposed to be this body that was removed from the people, right? It was representative of states, not of people. The House was the, you know, the rough-and-tumble place where the people voted for the lawmakers themselves. And lawmakers only served two-year terms. And they were expected to be more - sort of closer to the to the heartbeat of the public. And the Senate was supposed to exist outside of that and above that.

And so when you eliminate that difference - right? - with the 17th Amendment - you really eliminate a whole lot of the basic assumptions behind what the founders thought the federal government should look like.

GROSS: There have been more than 700 attempts to reform or abolish the Electoral College. What were some of those attempts, and why did they fail?

WEGMAN: One of the most fascinating things I found in working on this book was how nonpartisan - in the way we think of partisanship today - the efforts to amend or abolish the Electoral College have been. It's really hard today to think about the Electoral College separate from Democratic and Republican fighting. And when you go back and you look at all of these efforts, you realize that from almost the beginning, people of all political persuasions have seen the fundamental inequities and unfairness of how the college functions, starting back in, I think, 1816 was the first proposal in Congress to abolish the Electoral College completely and replace it with a popular vote.

But you see it happening all through our history. And you realize that this sense of political equality, the ideal of one person, one vote, it was there long before the Supreme Court actually institutionalized it in the early 1960s. The idea of majority rule, that the person who wins the most votes in an election should be the winner, is a really fundamental concept. And the Founding Fathers themselves talked about it being central to Republican government. So you look at all of these efforts and you say, oh, this wasn't really about, will Republicans win, or will Democrats win? It was a much deeper sense of the wrongs that were being caused by the college.

And, you know, I think the best example of this is from the 1960s, when you have an effort that came closer than any other in American history to abolishing the college and replacing it with the popular vote. This was an effort led in Congress and - in the Senate by Birch Bayh, who was a senator from Indiana, and passed the House of Representatives overwhelmingly in 1969. This is an amendment to abolish the Electoral College, passed the House of Representatives. This had never happened in American history. And it gets its support from President Richard Nixon, from over the next few years, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole. Like, Republicans and Democrats alike are on the side of getting rid of the Electoral College.

The amendment fails in the Senate because of a filibuster that was mounted and led by three Southern senators, all three of them segregationists - Strom Thurmond, James Eastland and Sam Ervin. And they blocked it because they understood that shifting to a popular vote was going to take away power that they had had and that white leaders had had in their region since the beginning.

GROSS: So when the Constitution was drafted and when the Electoral College was created, these were slave times. How did slavery and slave holders' desire to have as much power as possible contribute to the creation of the Electoral College?

WEGMAN: It's a fascinating part of the story that really has only come to light in the last few decades thanks to the work of some historians and legal scholars. You know, of course slavery is central to all of the deals made at the Constitution. It's, you know, it's the three-fifths clause. It's the creation of the Senate itself.

But I think with the Electoral College it's particularly interesting because the debate about the college really picks up in the middle of the summer. And this is after the delegates have agreed on the shape of the national legislature - Congress. Right? And they've already accepted - some of them quite grudgingly - that there was going to be a three-fifths clause, which meant counting, you know, slaves as three-fifths of a white person for purposes of representation, which gives the Southern slave states far more power in the government.

And then they come back to the question of, how are we going to elect a president? It came up early in the in the convention, and then it went away while they debated other things. So it comes back up. And, you know, one of the things that people, I think, don't know is that many of the founders were fans of a popular vote for president. They wanted one. And these are the most influential founders. These aren't backbenchers.

So someone like Gouverneur Morris, who's a delegate from Pennsylvania, he says on July 17 - he says, the president ought to be elected by the people at large. They will never fail to prefer some man of distinguished character and of continental reputation. Right? So we talk about founders being afraid of democracy. They didn't - they weren't all afraid of democracy. You know, some of them were quite happy to be led by the people.

So James Madison then, who is widely considered the father of the Constitution, he agrees with Gouverneur Morris. He says, you know, a direct popular vote for president was, in his opinion, the fittest in itself. Then he says there was one difficulty, however, of a serious nature regarding a popular vote. And then he puts it this way. And this is from his own notes.

He says, the right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern states, and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. So right there he's saying it. He's saying a popular vote for president would never fly with the Southern states because they are not - they don't give a vote to their slaves. And so they are - they suffer as a result of that in the outcome of the election.

So he says - then he says, the substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections. This is the beginning of when they start talking about a system other than a national popular vote. That's what ends up turning into the Electoral College. But you really can't separate out how we elect our president from the fact that slavery was central to all of these deals that were made at the time of the founding.

GROSS: That's really having it both ways, like slaves count in terms of how the votes are apportioned - like, you'd get more electors if you're counting slaves as, you know, three-fifths of a person. At the same time, the slaves can't vote.

WEGMAN: Exactly.

GROSS: So it's kind of like the South having it both ways, right?

WEGMAN: And they were fully - they openly admitting that. And the other - the founders from the North, people like James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris, were furious about this. And they basically said, how can you count these people as less? You know, if you're not going to count them as citizens, you count them as property. Well, can we count other things as property? Like, why don't we get to include our property then in the calculus of political power? So those debates were had very openly at the time. And the Southerners basically said we're fine with this and we'll walk away if you don't give us this extra power.

GROSS: It once again kind of belies the notion that the Founding Fathers were all geniuses who agreed on everything and, like, this is written in stone because it's perfect.

WEGMAN: Exactly. You know, the Constitution itself was a cobbled-together melange of different political theories and different ideas and different competing interests. And I think so many of the founders themselves soon after realized how many mistakes were embedded in it and wanted to change it.

GROSS: So part of the Electoral College is based on the South wanting to count slaves in the amount of power they had but not give slaves a vote. Do you think the Electoral College still has racist aspects in terms of how things are apportioned?

WEGMAN: Yes. They're not intentional in the same way. But you see the impact, for example, in the South right now, millions and millions of votes by black citizens basically don't count for anything because white citizens in that state are a majority - enough of a majority to always send their - to always win all of the electors in those states. So black voters in the South who vote for Democrats, which means virtually all blacks right now, are essentially invisible every presidential election.

So you see these patterns replicating themselves throughout our history. The people who stopped the popular vote amendment in the late 1960s were Southern segregationists. Some of the people who prevented us from getting to a popular vote in the founding of the country were slave holders. Again and again the pattern repeats itself.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jesse Wegman, a member of The New York Times editorial board and author of the new book "Let The People Pick The President: The Case For Abolishing The Electoral College." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jesse Wegman. He is the author of the new book "Let The People Pick The President: The Case For Abolishing The Electoral College." He's also a member of the New York Times editorial board.

If the Electoral College was abolished, which is very unlikely to happen, how do you think it would change campaigning, what presidential elections look like?

WEGMAN: So one of the most fascinating parts of working on this book was that I got to talk to dozens of campaign managers and field directors and people involved in how - in running national campaigns. And the simple answer is it would change it pretty dramatically, and in their eyes, for the better. With almost no exceptions, I found that both on the Republican and the Democratic side, all of these people who run these campaigns would prefer a popular vote election. And that's...

GROSS: Why?

WEGMAN: Well, it's because they understand how distorting it is to have to focus their efforts on this small handful of battleground states every four years. They know it's crazy that when you're trying to win an election for an office that covers the entire country, that you're only focusing on a small percentage of the voters in that country, and that you don't really care what any of the other voters say or think or want. You really care about what people in Ohio or even a sliver of Ohio or the I-4 corridor in Florida or, you know, a few towns in Wisconsin want, and that just is fundamentally - it's a fundamental discrepancy between how a president needs to govern, which is all 330 million people in the country, and how a president runs to win that office, which is sometimes even just a few tens of thousands of voters.

So these campaign managers that I - and field directors that I spoke to basically made the case that, yeah, sure, it would be a different system. They would be going to different places. They would be trying to win votes in places they're not trying to right now, but that they would vastly prefer it because it would mean reaching out to voters everywhere rather than just in a few narrow constituencies.

GROSS: So you think if we abolish the Electoral College, it could lead to more moderation in politics. Why do you think that?

WEGMAN: When candidates run for president now, they really only have to worry about the interests of small numbers of voters. So for example, what do, you know, people in Ohio want? Or what do people in Florida or Wisconsin want? I think that leads to candidates who are naturally going to be more extreme, more divisive. They don't need to worry about what most voters in America want. You saw that in 2016 with Donald Trump.

When you have to appeal to the vast majority of voters, you have - your policies are going to, by nature, become more moderate, become more in the middle of where most Americans are. I think more - most Americans do not want extreme policies; they want mainstream policies. And if you are appealing to them, they are going to vote for a candidate who advances those rather than for the candidate out on the fringes.

GROSS: Has writing your book on the Electoral College changed your idea of how American democracy has worked historically?

WEGMAN: That's a really interesting question. I mean, it's fascinating to think about how much might have been different if we elected our president differently. Just for an example, states' electoral votes are the same. States get the same number of electoral votes no matter how many people in their state vote, right? So it doesn't matter to them whether 100 people are voting in their state or, you know, 10 million people are voting.

If you think about how much sooner we might have had, say, women's right to vote if states realized that, wow, if we give half of our adult population the right to vote, we're going to have a lot more say in the outcome of the election; you just - it just changes the entire calculus for how the country might have developed. But instead, there was no incentive to do that because the states got the same number of electors in the end.

GROSS: So let's talk about what's happening now. As we record this, as a result of the coronavirus, a couple of states have already postponed their primaries. I know your book is about the Electoral College, and it's about history, but you've been very caught up in the electoral process. I'm wondering how you think it's going to affect our election if more states postpone their primaries. Or, you know, for the states that aren't postponing them, a lot of people will probably be afraid to go out and vote, especially if it means standing on a long line in close proximity to other people, and we're told to avoid standing in close proximity to other people right now.

WEGMAN: Right. And this is - I mean, we're facing an unprecedented situation here, so I fully understand the states that have decided to postpone their primaries. I think this is as good an argument as any for loosening up our rules about how people can vote and having mail - voting by mail, having no-excuse absentee ballots, which is another way of voting by mail. Yes, I think whatever we can do to keep turnout up at a time when people very rightly should not be standing near each other in long lines is a good thing.

I also think, like any other crisis or any other stressor on the system, this falls more heavily on lower-income communities and communities of color and the kinds of people that I think are always more on the margins of voting than, say, people in wealthier communities who might not have such a hard time casting a ballot or waiting in line. So I'm really, especially concerned for them as we approach these - the next round of primaries.

GROSS: Well, I really so much appreciate you coming out to the studio to do this interview. Thank you so much. Jesse Wegman, I really, really appreciate it, and I wish you good health. Please stay well.

WEGMAN: Thanks. And you, too.

GROSS: Jesse Wegman is the author of the new book "Let The People Pick The President: The Case For Abolishing The Electoral College." He's a member of The New York Times editorial board.

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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about music in this time of fear, stress and isolation with Yannick Nezet-Seguin, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. He last conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra last Thursday in a performance that was livestreamed in an empty concert hall. And speaking of live audiences, we'll also hear an excerpt of the interview I recorded with him in front of a live audience last spring. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our technical director and engineer is Aubrey Bentham. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.