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Electoral College's future shaky after Trump win

James Dawson/Delaware Public Media
A group of Republican faithful closely watch CNN on election night as the returns roll in.

This year, 2.6 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than President-elect Donald Trump, yet Trump won the Electoral College and will lead the country for the next four years.

Delaware Public Media’s James Dawson reports on how this outcome has spurred a renewed conversation about ditching the Electoral College.

The Electoral College system has confounded people for generations. For many of us, it’s been awhile since our last civics lesson, so here’s a quick breakdown.

Each state is assigned a number of congressional representatives based on its population. Each of them also has two senators to give equal voice at the highest level of government to states with fewer people living in them.

Now combine those two numbers and that gets you the total amount of electoral votes for each state.

In Delaware – that’s three – and the trio of electoral votes are bound to whoever carries the state.  In this case, that’s Hillary Clinton, who beat president-elect Donald Trump by more than 10 points here in November.

But nationwide, jilted Democrats are among those calling to eliminate the 212-year-old system entirely, since it fails to reflect that 2.6 million more people voted for Clinton over Trump.

But that outrage may be exactly what early lawmakers wanted to avoid.

University of Delaware political science chair David Redlawsk says the Electoral College was originally founded to “check the passions of the public.”

“The founders, despite the fact that we think of democracy as what we have, were pretty nervous about what unfettered democratic structures might do to people like them and people in power,” Redlawsk said.

It was also a way to get buy-in from smaller states that, proportionately, would have a not insignificant role in appointing the country’s next leader in a straight popular vote.

And that loss of influence has some reluctant to change to the system.

More than 80 percent of Americans now live in urban areas, according to the most recent census. The country lost its rural majority between 1910 and 1920.

Those left living next to lush wheat fields or under an open sky say they don’t want to become more of an afterthought than they already are.

State Rep. Jeff Spiegelman (R-Clayton) agrees, though he hasn’t taken a firm position on the issue.

“If we were to eliminate the Electoral College, all candidates for president in the future would either come from or only campaign essentially in five or six places,” he said.

Spiegelman argues New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other densely populated areas boast troves of votes ripe for the plucking, and candidates would trade pig roast fundraisers and county fair meet-and-greets for slick cocktail parties in glitzy skyscrapers.

Redlawsk used to have similar feelings. Now, he says using the popular vote would be a chance to reinvigorate the disenfranchised or the politically apathetic.        

“You could make an argument that you’re going to design campaigns to attract every popular vote you possibly can no matter where it’s from and that becomes a very different kind of campaign that I would argue has to address the wide range of issues across the country,” he said.

This is the fifth time a majority of Americans didn’t vote for the president-elect and the second in as many decades.

It also comes at a time in which politics is more divisive than ever. Redlawsk predicts that divide will grow wider if the Electoral College stays in place, leading to more instances of the president-elect losing the popular vote.

“I think it exacerbates the polarization even further, which exacerbates the gridlock.”

He’s not alone in that prediction.

“Quite frankly, the electoral college is not, I don’t think it promotes a certain fairness and it certainly limits the willingness of any candidate to go into a certain state because the prize is not worth the investment,” said state Rep. John Kowalko (D-Newark)

Kowalko helped write a bill in 2011 that would have forced Delaware electors to follow the will of the national popular vote.

It barely passed the House that year and never received a Senate hearing.

For Kowalko, it’s a matter of fairness.

“It’s incumbent upon us to reform the system any way we can to make it more reflective of who the people are voting for.”

10 states and Washington, D.C. have passed similar measures – all of them safe Democratic strongholds with 165 electoral votes among them, according to the National Popular Vote group.

The legislation is a way to bypass the main hurdle to dumping the Electoral College: getting three quarters of the states to ratify a constitutional amendment.

Supporters say at least one legislative chamber in 12 other states has signed off, adding another 96 potential electoral votes.

To become a de facto override, states with a combined 270 electoral votes would have to sign on.

Kowalko says he’s looking for sponsors to bring the bill back here next year.=

In the meantime, there has been talk of electors changing their votes.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Texas elector Christopher Suprun says he refuses to vote for Donald Trump, saying he’s someone who “shows daily he is not qualified for the office.”

Texas has no law forcing them to side with the state’s popular vote winner. But a Colorado judge just ruled against two electors who sued to not cast their votes for Hillary Clinton, saying they could be replaced if they don’t comply.

Drama could still unfold in state capitols across the country, though it seems unlikely in Delaware.

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