- Interview by
- Chris Maisano
Millions of Americans went into Election Day 2020 consumed by fears of public disorder and political violence. While many of those fears were overblown, election-related anxiety was far from irrational. It was clear that no matter the results, Donald Trump would question and challenge them with every tool at his disposal. This is a man who, in 2016, disputed the results of an election he won.
In the end, the presidential election system performed much better in 2020 than many anticipated. The US Postal Service successfully withstood the Trump administration’s brazen attacks, and the rate of absentee ballot rejections was actually far lower than in previous elections.
As expected, Trump and his minions are throwing every legal tactic they have at the wall and hoping that something sticks. So far nothing has, and it looks certain that Joe Biden will assume the presidency in January. Biden’s margin of victory is simply too large in too many states for Trump’s characteristically cloddish attempt at an autogolpe to succeed.
None of this is to say that the American electoral system stands vindicated. To the extent that Trump had a path to a “coup” against the popular will, it ran largely through the institutions and processes of the system itself — above all, the Electoral College and its indirect, counter-majoritarian method of electing the president.
Jacobin contributing editor Chris Maisano spoke with Harvard University historian Alexander Keyssar — author of the recently published book Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? — about the election results and the potential prospects for democratic electoral reform. Their conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
How did our creaky presidential election system fare on November 3?
It’s hard to give it a single grade. I’d say the system fared pretty well on November 3 and November 4. Turnout was high. There were relatively few reports of voter suppression incidents at the polls, and the counting proceeded on schedule. The system seemed to be pretty reliable despite the enormous number of mail-in ballots, which was a challenge to the system. In many key respects, the system fared quite well — better than most people expected.
Since then, the creaky junctures in our electoral system, the typically invisible procedural complexity, has come to the fore and is being exploited to try to overturn the outcome of the election. That’s a less cheery conclusion.
There was a lot of talk about a possible coup in the days leading up to the election, and there will still be concern until Joe Biden is actually sworn in. The word “coup” implies a subversion of the constitutional order, but it seems everything a figure like Trump would need to pull one off is right there in the Constitution itself, no?
I think it potentially is. The fact that the Constitution indicates electors shall be chosen in such manner as state legislatures shall decide opens the way for state legislatures to choose electors themselves. Whether they can actually do that after a popular election is legally and constitutionally unclear, but it does create a potential path.
So does the fact that votes have to be certified by officials who are themselves, in most cases, partisan. There are all sorts of openings here for pressure and manipulations that violate democratic norms but may not violate the law.
The American political system relies so much on informal norms and customs. That goes for the presidential election as much as it goes for everything else. With these brazen attempts at manipulation, do you get a sense that a critical mass of people will scratch their heads and say “this doesn’t seem like the best way of electing a president”? That maybe we shouldn’t put so much faith in the unwritten rules and expectations?
I was cheered when the Republican leaders of the Pennsylvania legislature made it very clear that they wanted no part of an attempt to change the outcome in the state in order to benefit President Trump. On the other hand, I’m disturbed and worried that the leaders of the Michigan Republican Party felt the need to meet with Trump in Washington about the vote in that state.
This is an obvious violation of a norm we would expect: that officials with a role in the vote-counting process would not meet with one of the candidates and possibly allow themselves to be pressured. This concern was partially assuaged by the statement issued by Michigan’s legislative leaders after that meeting.
We’re seeing a mixed picture here. The ongoing reluctance of Republican leaders to speak out vocally against this manipulation of the electoral system is not altogether surprising, but it’s very disturbing. It’s difficult to calculate the damage that’s being done to American democracy.
It’s overwhelmingly likely, if not absolutely certain, that Joe Biden will occupy the White House on January 20. But it seems quite certain that a large majority of Republicans will go on believing he won the election through fraudulent means, which is certainly not true. And that is likely to delegitimize Biden and his policies in the eyes of a significant proportion of the population. That’s disturbing.
It doesn’t seem likely that Trump will just disappear from the political scene and stop riling up his very large base of supporters.
Yes, I can see Trump launching a new series of mass rallies, for example. I do wonder whether his followers might start experiencing something that you could call “Trump fatigue.” It’s tiring to be whipped up into that kind of constant frenzy again and again.
He’s not going to simply return to Mar-a-Lago and play golf. He will continue to broadcast expressions of grievance and resentment, but whether it will be effective six months from now or a year from now is really unclear to me. He won’t have much actual power, and that will make a difference.
It seems like Trump’s attempts to overturn the results can’t work because there are just too many states involved here. If this all came down to just one state, there would probably be a much more effective and intense effort to do what they’d like to do under more favorable circumstances.
There’s no doubt this would all be much more hazardous if it was just one state, maybe even two states, like Georgia and Pennsylvania, or Georgia and Michigan. Michigan’s a perplexing case because Biden won by 150,000 votes. You’d have to find something really weird and irregular to overturn that margin. But in that scenario the pressure on civil servants and on Republican officials would have been immense.
The fact that the legislatures in many of the key swing states are Republican-dominated has long been a source of worry along these lines. If the election came down to one state, maybe even two, the pressure on them to figure out some way to reverse the apparent outcome of the popular vote would be perhaps irresistible.
Biden wound up flipping Arizona and Georgia, but he came up short in North Carolina and in the most tantalizing prize of all, Texas. Before the election I hoped he would run the table in those states just to see how it might crack open the electoral system. Do you think Republicans would have begun to rethink the virtues of winner-take-all in the Electoral College if Biden had swept all of those states?
If Biden ran the table in those states, many Republicans might well have begun to rethink the virtues of winner-take-all. Texas was definitely the big prize, and the possibility of losing all of Texas’s electoral votes indefinitely might lead them to change their minds.
As a bit of arcane recent history behind this, after the 2012 election a number of prominent Republicans began to float the idea of dropping winner-take-all for a district system, targeting those states that tended to vote Democratic in presidential elections but had Republican state legislative majorities — the “Blue Wall” states in particular.
This strategizing was, of course, for purely instrumental purposes. But it made clear that adherence to a winner-take-all system in the Electoral College is not based on principle for politicians and operatives. It’s based on a partisan calculus. And the partisan calculus might well have looked quite different if Biden ran the table and Democrats did better in down-ballot races as well.
Had that scenario unfolded, it would have stood a good chance of stimulating a different conversation about electoral reform. I don’t think that’s going to happen now. Biden flipping Georgia and Arizona by close margins isn’t a significant enough development to lead Republicans to rethink all of this. My expectation is that Republicans will dig in their heels against any changes to the electoral system, despite its increasingly apparent flaws. This could easily end up hurting them in the long run.
One of the main lessons I took from your book is that it’s not a good idea to project today’s calculations of partisan advantage into the future. Things can change very quickly, and figures on both sides of the partisan divide have made mistakes along those lines over the years.
Yes, and very serious ones. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s the mainstream of the Republican Party was very reluctant to endorse a proportional system for allocating electors. They feared they would lose a bunch of electoral votes in northern Midwestern states, and they were convinced that the Republican Party had no future in the South. But twenty years later the South was moving en masse toward the Republican Party.
Might there be anyone in the Republican Party that can read the writing on the wall and see that sometime soon they may not be able to bank on winning all of the electoral votes from Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina? If they can’t, they will have a lot of trouble winning presidential elections. Someone on that side must be aware of these dynamics, no?
I think that’s true. And I certainly can imagine there are some farsighted Republicans who are thinking in the long-term. In the last ten years some Republicans have even endorsed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) for reasons somewhat like that.
I think that whether this becomes more significant will depend on what happens with the Republican Party over the next few years. The Trumpist wing of the party does not seem to have its eye on the long run. It doesn’t seem to be looking at overall party health and party strategy for the next two decades. You would see that emerge as a significant position only if there’s enough internal turmoil within the GOP to give different voices leading roles in the party.
Speaking of the NPVIC, Colorado became the latest state to join it on November 3. What do you think are the prospects for continuing to expand the compact and get it even closer to the two hundred seventy electoral vote threshold?
I think the prospects are reasonably good for the compact to make further progress. The paradox right now is that this election and its aftermath have made it clearer than ever that the system needs to change, and that we cannot have a presidential system which allows minoritarian victors — not to mention all of the procedural kinks and junctures that raise the potential for mischief.
But at the same time, most Republican leaders and activists will take a look at the election results and say, “the Electoral College works better for us than a national popular vote would, so we’re going to block any attempts to amend the Constitution. The Democrats don’t have enough strength in Congress to push very far ahead on this without Republican support.”
Given that likely stalemate in Congress, people interested in electoral system reform will devote more attention and energy to the compact and related ideas too. Whether the compact can win in some red states or more purple states is unclear to me, because most Republicans remain wary of the compact.
Last week, the political scientist Steven Teles argued in a New York Times op-ed that the Left should just get over the fact that the electoral system is unfair and organize everywhere to be as effective as possible under the current rules of the game. What do you make of that argument?
I don’t think the two approaches are mutually exclusive. Organizing everywhere certainly makes sense. But that doesn’t mean surrendering the democratic reform agenda that a lot of people on the Left have been promoting. Those reforms are sensible and principled. A fundamental roster of democratic reforms, including Electoral College reform, perhaps a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to vote, something to replace the Voting Rights Act, should remain very much in our minds, and I think a lot of people are going to want to put energy behind them.
The Senate is a tougher nut to crack. It is a big problem, but it comes with an added layer of constitutional protection. So however much the Senate gets in the way of positive changes, I wouldn’t put dealing with it very high on my list of things to work on right now.