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Since the election, protests for issues on both sides of the political spectrum have grabbed headlines. A women’s march, a march for life, a march for science, the list goes on. But can these protests make a difference, and if so, where? We talk to political science experts about movements that have succeeded in the past and how change may come about, specifically when it comes to the electoral college system that some feel over-values certain states over others.

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  • David Cannon, Professor and Chair of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Jasmine Farrier, Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville

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Gary Price: According to experts, the Women’s March this January was the largest global protest the world has ever seen.  Women, men and even children protested in huge numbers.

David Canon: It’s quite likely that nothing in the Civil Rights movement or the Viet Nam protest movement rivaled what we saw in the Women’s March.

Price: That’s David Canon, professor and chair of political science at the University of Wisconsin/Madison. He says the turnout was impressive, but it takes more than just big numbers to impact policy.

Canon: I think that’s clearly their intention. They don’t want this just to be a one-off; they want this to be the beginning of a much broader movement that will affect American politics down the road. The best examples we have from recent American history that had a major impact on policy change and political change would be the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, the anti war Viet Nam protests of the 60s and early 70s and the Tea Party movement of the last decade.

Price: Canon says the Tea Party protests were successful for several reasons.

Canon: They had the mass protests. The second, they also remained organized at the local level and influenced politics at the local level of really taking over in some cases local party organizations with activists that would go to meetings and go to city and council meetings and party organization meetings. And then third and maybe most importantly, they ran people for office in Republican primaries. They challenged Republican incumbents who they felt weren’t true to the Tea Party principles and in many cases they won elections. And so those three things were all successfully carried out by the Tea Party.

Price: Tea Party members did a great job of getting out to vote. Polls showed Democrats in the last election may not have.

Jasmine Farrier: Ironically votes matter more when other votes don’t show up. So when people step out of an election whether or not there is high turn out, but especially when there is low turnout, there’s a disproportionate weight to those who decide to participate.

Price: That’s Jasmine Farrier, professor of political science at the University of Louisville.

Farrier: And I don’t think that anybody should say that their fellow voter can speak for them. And it’s often the case that the people who do participate are actually very different from the people who don’t. And they are not representing each other whatsoever. That would be a tragedy for people to take that lesson from this election.

Price: The tragedy being the belief that their vote doesn’t count. Many disgruntled Democrats point to the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, but still lost the election. They believe we should adopt a straight popular vote. Similar arguments are made by Republicans living in a blue state like California or Illinois, because in the Electoral College all the votes in their states in the last several elections have gone to Democrats. Is the Electoral College to blame?

Canon: I’ve never been a fan of the Electoral College. I have been for 20 years in my classes when I talk about this in my American politics classes I’ve been advocating getting rid of the Electoral College for decades. And so, yeah, I think it’s not a good way to elect  our President, that as many flaws and the biggest one being that the popular vote winner loses with some frequency, and that doesn’t seem like a good way to translate peoples’ preferences into electing probably the most important democratically elected person in the world.

Price: Canon says the Electoral College was created by founding fathers like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, because they didn’t trust the voters and feared populism.

Farrier: They were very fearful of what we sometimes call majority rule, which is on the one hand a legitimate second choice if we don’t have a unanimous vote. So when we think about living in a self-governing community, unanimity would be lovely if everybody agreed, but that’s next to impossible. So the next opportunity would be to have a majority. It could be a simple majority or a super majority, but the concept there was that people would have direct connections and therefore direct power over their communities. A simple majority would be 50 percent plus one of any community. A super majority would be a higher fraction, so for example, the Constitution has five different places where super majorities are required. An example would be to override a presidential veto, two-thirds of both the House and Senate are necessary to begin the amendment process to send an amendment proposal to the states the House and Senate also need to vote by two-thirds each. Just the Senate is required for two-thirds for ratifying a treaty and there are a few other examples.

Price: Like, for instance, changing the Electoral College system to a straight popular vote. Farrier says a straight popular vote would be easy to administer and get an accurate count. But politically?

Farrier: In reality an electoral popular vote would really advantage cities in the United States, which is something that the Electoral College does not. So that’s a separate subject that may be worth discussing, because Democratic votes are disproportionately concentrated in cities, and if cities have more direct power then there would be a tilt toward the Democratic party in a presidential race. But cities are also very different in their outlook and in their population and in the policy proposals that they prefer. So, it’s not to say that it’s right or wrong, but it’s certainly a shift that has become more pronounced even in red states. So if you look at electoral distributions even keeping the Electoral College if you had cities allowed to have a separate electoral vote, then you would see a much more purple America even in red states.

Price: Two states — Maine and Nebraska — already have this system where cities get an electoral vote. It’s called the Congressional District Method. All fifty states could use this system if they wanted to without requiring a constitutional amendment. But there’s another proposal to adopt a different system that also wouldn’t require a constitutional amendment. It’s called the National Popular Vote Compact Between States, and ten states have already signed on.

Canon: The way it would work is that a state legislature passes a law and it’s signed into law by the governor that that state pledges to cast their electors for the national popular vote winner, not the popular vote winner of their state. As soon as enough states sign on to that compact where you get a majority of the Electoral College who has signed onto that compact, so 270 Electoral College votes worth of states to agree to this mechanism, then the compact becomes in effect and so it becomes binding at that point that a state is not bound by the law until enough states sign up that you actually will guarantee electing the popular vote winner.

Price: But Farrier says there are plenty of reasons why other states won’t adopt the compact or even the congressional district method used by Maine and Nebraska.

Farrier: The reason why states don’t do this is because they are by majority frankly happy with the way that the electoral vote is counted in that state by tradition. So for example in my own state on Kentucky, Louisville, Kentucky and sometimes Lexington, Kentucky, which is a separate congressional district, they both go blue in an otherwise red state.

Price: So even though there are plenty of Democrats living in Kentucky, more voters are Republican, so the whole state goes red.

Farrier: The problem with changing rules is to try to make sure that you will win by the new rules if you are upset by losing at the old rules. In other words, for every Republican who can complain that he or she is not represented in the state of California, you can have a Democrat in the state of Texas who believes that he or she is not represented. So the problem with changing rules is that you can’t change them just for the purpose of benefitting one side or another.

Price: Farrier says as controversial as the Electoral College is, their have only been five elections in United States history where a presidential candidate won the Electoral College, but lost the popular vote.

Farrier: The founders would say it mostly works because for the most part, again, the popular vote is the electoral winner, and sometimes the electoral winner does get exaggerated in meaning that the President has to be mindful of the mandate. Let’s take a bipartisan example there too. Bill Clinton only won with about 42 percent of the vote, but he got a pretty sizeable Electoral College majority. The question to him was, did he govern as if he had not received even a simple majority in three-way election in 1992? George W. Bush did win the Electoral College, of course, but he did not win the popular vote, and the question would go to him, did he govern as if he lost the popular vote? Of course then it was under a million. The same question would go to President Trump today. You can be mindful of your electoral victory, but you also have to be mindful of the popular vote and govern accordingly.  

Price: So where does that leave us – the voters?

Farrier: My takeaway point here is that if you were trying to construct a society and build the rules from scratch, you might have a specific policy goal in mind, or even a partisan power ideal in mind, but these structures are not necessarily going to always benefit you. So in constructing a new Electoral College we would have to be mindful of the fact the rules cannot be designed specifically to benefit any one set of voters or any one party or any one region of the country explicitly. And I know it’s painful to lose under the rules, I’m not saying that people should not be in pain, but changing the rules does not always mean that they will be to your advantage in the future.

Price: As Alexander Hamilton said of the Electoral College, “It isn’t perfect, but it is excellent.”  

Farrier: I think that it’s a mistake for people to take from this election that their votes don’t count. It’s actually the opposite. Hillary Clinton would be President but for 80,0000 votes in four states. So I think that the idea of checking out of the electoral vote because you don’t think you are counted is wrong, it’s simply not true. If she had gotten those 80,000 votes in four states she would be President. And considering the millions of votes that were cast, that’s actually a pretty small number. And what that means is that the votes matter quite a bit. I’ll give you another example that’s even more dramatic. My current governor, a Republican named Matt Bevin won his nomination in a four-way race and he won the nomination by 83 votes. Eighty-three. And it was a very low voter turnout primary for the Republicans in Kentucky. So ironically votes matter more when other votes don’t show up.

Price: Maybe if everyone people voted more people would feel adequately represented. The next mid-term elections are in 2018. Where will you be – at home or in the booth? You can learn more about our guests David Canon, professor and chair of political science at the University of Wisconsin/Madison and Jasmine Farrier, professor of political science at the University of Louisville by visiting our website at viewpointsonline.net Our writer/producer this week is Polly Hansen. I’m Gary Price.