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A Big Day in the U.S. : The Electoral College and Democracy

It’s a big day in the U.S.: The Electoral College meets, and the mass vaccination campaign begins.

The members of the Electoral College will meet in states across the country today. And while President Trump has tried to disrupt the process, his chances of succeeding remain very slim.

Still, Trump’s actions have made many democracy experts anxious about the Electoral College — specifically, how it could undermine elections in the near future. The Electoral College may have become a bigger threat to the healthy functioning of American democracy than at any other point since the 1800s, these experts say.

There are two main reasons, and the first one will sound familiar: The Electoral College is more likely to deny victory to the winner of the popular vote than in the past. The main reason is that political polarization has led to landslides in more states than in the past.

The popular-vote loser almost won the presidency again this year, for the third time in 20 years. If Trump had received just 0.7 percentage points more of the vote in every state, he still would have lost the popular vote badly. Yet he would have won exactly 269 electoral votes, causing an Electoral College tie that Congress likely would have decided in his favor.

Imagine how disenfranchised many Americans would have felt in that scenario.

The second issue with the Electoral College may be even more troubling, scholars say: The Constitution allows states to award their electors almost however they want. They are not required to choose the winner of the state’s vote, as Jesse Wegman of the Times editorial board points out. (Jesse, who’s a lawyer, has written a book on the problems with the Electoral College.)

A state could pass a law, for instance, saying it would award its electors to whichever candidate would best serve the national interest. Or a state legislature could step in after an election, by claiming that the will of the voters was unclear, Richard Pildes of the N.Y.U. School of Law has noted.

These possibilities might have sounded outlandish a few years ago.

They sound less outlandish today, Pildes and others say.

A sitting president is attempting to overturn the outcome of an election and remain in office despite losing the vote. Almost 90 percent of that president’s party members in Congress refuse to acknowledge the true winner of the election. Top officials in 18 states and more than half of House Republicans supported a lawsuit trying to reverse the result.

These moves indicate that much of the leadership of one of the country’s two political parties is willing to toss aside the country’s democratic traditions to support a power grab. It’s an example of what the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt — in their book, “How Democracies Die” — call constitutional hardball.

Some observers believe that the situation will calm down once Trump leaves the presidency and that the Electoral College process will continue to be a boring, technocratic one that reliably rewards the vote winner in each state. Others aren’t so confident.

“Once people decide that the rules are different, the rules are different. The rules for electoral legitimacy have been under sustained assault, and they’re changing right before our eyes.”

Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina wrote in The Atlantic.

Related: A small group of Republicans are plotting a challenge on the floor of the House of Representatives in early January to try to reverse Joe Biden’s victory.

And more from Jesse Wegman: A new Opinion article on why majority rule is so important.

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