• Politics

‘Jilted Battlegrounds.’ Could Former Swing States End the Electoral College?

6 minute read

Like other political operatives, John Koza keeps tabs on the Electoral College map.

But he’s not looking at big swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania. Instead, the head of the National Popular Vote advocacy group is keenly interested in the states that presidential campaigns recently stopped caring as much about.

It’s those states — places like Colorado and Nevada — that he believes could change the way America picks its presidents.

Koza, who has a Ph.D. in computer science, calls them “jilted battlegrounds”: states that had a taste of being the center of attention in a hard-fought presidential election is like, then lost it as they drifted away from swing-state status. He believes these states are key to shutting down the Electoral College for good, and sooner than you’d think.

“2020 is a reach,” he said. “I do think it’ll be done by 2024.”

Abolishing the Electoral College has long been a staple of dorm-room discussions and dinner-table speculation. But President Donald Trump’s Electoral College win in 2016 — despite losing the popular vote by nearly three million votes — has given new urgency to reformers.

Democratic presidential candidates are increasingly vocal on the issue. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for abolishing the Electoral College during a town hall on CNN earlier this week, joining South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. California Sen. Kamala Harris said she’s “open to the discussion,” while former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said he “sees wisdom” in the idea.

In response, Trump — who once called the Electoral College “a disaster for democracy” — tweeted that he now believes it’s “far better for the U.S.A.” to keep it.

It’s not just Trump who’s switched sides. In 2011, 54% of Republicans told the Pew Research Center that the U.S. should elect presidents by popular vote. After Trump’s win in 2016, that number dropped dramatically, to just 32% in a similar Pew poll in 2018. By contrast, 75% of Democrats in the 2018 poll backed abolishing the Electoral College.

That switch in party sentiment is one reason that skeptics doubt the movement to abolish the Electoral College can succeed. A constitutional amendment — which would require a two-thirds vote in Congress and ratification by two-thirds of states, if not an unheard-of constitutional convention, seems nearly impossible with this kind of polarization.

But Koza, who helped create the scratch-off lottery ticket earlier in his career, believes he found an elegant way around that problem: Convincing states to join an interstate compact pledging to give their electors to the winner of the national popular vote. (The compact would go into effect once states representing a majority in the Electoral College have joined.) He’s lobbied for states to join the compact since 2006, by coauthoring a book on the idea and talking with state lawmakers.

So far, 12 states plus Washington, D.C., have joined, including big states like California, Illinois, New Jersey and New York; medium-sized states like Maryland, Massachusetts and Washington; and smaller states like Rhode Island and Vermont. Colorado joined this week, and bills are awaiting the signatures of the governors of New Mexico and Delaware.

If those last two states join, it would put the total electors in the compact at 189, 81 shy of the 270 needed for it to go into effect.

That’s where things start to get tricky. So far, all of the states that have joined are historically blue states. The remaining blue states — Oregon, Michigan and Minnesota — could bring the interstate compact idea within striking distance. But to reach 270, it’s going to take more than that.

That’s where the “jilted battleground” theory comes into play. Colorado and New Mexico would be the first former battlegrounds to join the compact, and Koza thinks Nevada and Virginia are in a similar position. Those are all red-to-blue states that became Democratic strongholds, and more likely to back an idea that has strong support among grassroots Democrats.

But Koza, a registered Democrat who served as an elector in 1992 and 2000, thinks the popular vote could cross the finish line with the support of some former battlegrounds that are increasingly Republican, such as Ohio. If it ends up overlooked in the 2020 race, he argues, state lawmakers could have a “light bulb moment” and join the effort, especially if a Democrat ends up in the White House.

Not everyone is convinced by Koza’s theory.

Colorado political consultant Rick Ridder, a Democrat, said he thinks the state’s decision to back the compact had more to do with its increasingly Democratic lean. Plus, he noted that Colorado wouldn’t lose influence either way, since the Denver metropolitan area — the 26th biggest in the country — would still be a target for ads, campaign visits and get-out-the-vote efforts under a national popular vote.

Reed Hundt, head of the bipartisan Making Every Vote Count advocacy group, thinks the states that will put it over the top might instead come from a successful ballot measure driven by grassroots support. Twenty-six states allow voters to approve either an initiative or a referendum on an issue, including potential interstate-compact targets like Ohio, Missouri and Arizona.

“The important thing is public opinion,” the former FCC chairman said. “The American people by large numbers need to say, ‘What’s up with this 18th century artifact? We don’t need to let it pick the president for us. We should pick ourselves.'”

Whichever strategy activists pursue in the next few years, the interstate compact is both closer than ever to success and still far from the finish line. A handful of medium-sized states could make the 2020 election the last one held under the current Electoral College system — or the effort could find itself in perpetual limbo, tantalizingly close to 270 but never quite there.

Even if enough states join, it would also likely face a constitutional challenge. Rob Natelson, a noted constitutional scholar and member of the Federalist Society, has argued that the compact violates other states’ constitutional rights to choose their electors.

Hundt remains optimistic that it will succeed eventually, in part because he thinks Electoral College results will increasingly cut against the popular will. A statistical analysis in 2017 done for Making Every Vote Count predicted splits between the Electoral College and the popular vote could happen in nearly one out of three elections in the next century, and neither party is likely to have a long-term advantage.

Based on how members of both parties have reacted in the past, a Republican loss under those circumstances would likely move public opinion on the right pretty quickly. And that, Hundt believes, could be what finally makes the difference.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com