On January 24, the Eric H. Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights hosted American Voter Project: The Impact and Future of the Electoral College, the first in its five-part American Voter Project series being held this spring.
The panel discussion, held in Low Rotunda and moderated by Holder Initiative Executive Director Bernard E. Harcourt, featured Kamala Kelkar JRN’15, digital associate producer at PBS NewsHour Weekend; The Honorable Lisa Foster, treasurer of Making Every Vote Count; and Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard. Former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. CC’73, LAW’76, who had also been scheduled for the panel, was unable to attend due to illness.
Harcourt opened the event with an overview of the Electoral College, noting that “the Electoral College has become an institution of increasing concern to many citizens, and is now steeped in controversy.”
“As you know, in two of the last five presidential elections, the person who won the popular vote was not elected by the Electoral College,” he added.
The discussion — which focused on understanding and exploring the problems inherent in the Electoral College’s current functioning — began with Kelkar’s explanation of its history, tracing the complex system back to the 1787 Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia.
She went on to explain that the two party system that evolved — something she said the Framers arguably fought hard not to have — allowed for lobbying that led to a “winner takes all system” in some states, which the Framers hadn’t anticipated.
“On top of that winner takes all system, the Framers couldn’t anticipate some other obvious things, such as the evolution of slavery, suffrage of women and Black people, the blurring of geographical lines, advances in transportation and the dissemination of information — basically the modern society that we have today,” Kelkar added. “Which is why we’re having the discussion about whether an old system can still support our modern society.”
Foster spoke about her work with Making Every Vote Count, which is trying to get additional states to adopt the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact — a law that, when enacted, would send a state’s electors to the Electoral College based on the winner of the national popular vote rather than on the winner of their state.
“One could achieve the same result by abolishing the Electoral College all together, and do what we did for United States senators,” said Foster. “Most of us forget that for 125 years, we didn’t directly elect our senators either. They were elected by state legislatures.”
But as Foster noted, this approach — which would require a Constitutional amendment — would be significantly more difficult to achieve.
Lessig spoke about his litigation work, which he views as a complement to the work being done by Making Every Vote Count.
“We want to shake the status quo up by taking a principle that has become central to the idea of equal protection, and the idea of one person one vote, and go into these states that have winner take all, and to ask federal courts in those states to recognize the way winner take all is inconsistent with the principle of one person one vote,” he said.
An audience Q&A concluded the event, with students lined up for questions for the length of Low Rotunda.
Prior to the event, Kelkar spoke to Harcourt’s undergraduate political science class, “Power, Rights and Social Change: Achieving Justice,” about her work covering a “social justice beat,” as she described it. Students from the class also joined Harcourt and the panelists for a reception where even the refreshments reflected the Holder Initiative’s social justice mission: brownies from Greyston Bakery, which employs individuals regardless of education, work history or social barriers such as language skills, homelessness or incarceration, and hors d’oeuvres by Eat Offbeat, which provides food conceived, prepared and delivered by refugees resettled in New York City.
The Holder Initiative’s next event, American Voter Project: The Problem of Voter Suppression, will be held on Monday, February 19. For more information, visit holder.college.columbia.edu.