2020 Minow Debates Asks If the Electoral College Is Still Needed


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Moderator: John Donvan; Top: Kate Shaw, Jamelle Bouie; Bottom: Bradley Smith, Tara Ross

On May 20, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and Intelligence Squared hosted the third Newt and Jo Minow Debate, “The Electoral College Has Outlived Its Usefulness.” After the 95-minute debate, which streamed on the Intelligence Squared YouTube page, the team arguing for the motion was victorious.

Journalist John Donvan hosted the event from Washington, D.C., while the debaters were stationed across the country. Arguing for the motion were Jamelle Bouie, columnist for the New York Times; and Kate Shaw, co-director of the Floersheimer Center for Constitutional Democracy at Cordozo School of Law and Supreme Court contributor for ABC News. The panelists arguing against the motion were Tara Ross, author of Why We Need the Electoral College; and Bradley A. Smith, Josiah H. Blackmore II/Shirly M. Nault Professor of Law at Capital University Law School and former chairman of Federal Election Commission.

Donvan introduced the debate, which consisted of seven-minute opening arguments, audience Q&A, and two-minute closing arguments, by pointing out that there have been five instances in American history when the popular vote went to someone who lost the electoral vote. Bouie opened round one: “The electoral college that we have, the one that we will use in November’s election, is not the one that was ratified in 1788,” he said. “It fell out of use very quickly.” After much debate, the founding fathers settled on an elector-based system, Bouie said, but they weren’t enthusiastic about it. Prior to the 1800s, people were not concerned with mob-mentality or the idea of party lines—they became a concern after the contested elections of 1796 and 1800, where political parties played a dominant role.

Shaw added that we don’t have to go far back in history to see the effects of this system, citing the 2000 and 2016 elections. In 2000, George W. Bush won the presidency with 271 electoral votes, compared to Al Gore’s 266. But Bush lost the popular vote by about half a million. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton decisively in the electoral college, though he lost the popular vote by nearly three million. “Standing alone, no one single incident is a complete indictment of the electoral college, but this is an exceptionally high error rate…and rate of malfunction,” she said. “[Especially] for something this consequential as the election of the President.” Shaw also noted that “swing states,” also known as “purple states”— which skew more rural and whiter than the rest of the country—tend to wield all the power because of this system. Blue states like New York and California, and red states like Mississippi and Alabama, don’t get acknowledged, according to Shaw.

Ross, arguing against the motion, opened with an anecdote about civil rights leaders in the 1960s, who were adamant about keeping the electoral college. They argued that dismantling of the electoral college would harm racial minorities, she said. Ross also pointed out that the system forces both Democrats and Republicans to build coalitions and interact with individuals outside of their “safe” states. Smith rounded out the opening statements. He argued that the U.S. is not the only country to have an electoral college system—Australia, India, and Canada have similar procedures. “Have all these countries got it wrong?” he asked. “Our system is different, but the principles are the same.” He countered Shaw’s point about purple states:, yes there are swing states, he said, but the other states aren’t irrelevant. “Try winning the electoral college as a Democrat without winning California.”

For the next hour, Donvan questioned the points made by both sides, and took pre-submitted questions from viewers, including from Vox reporter Emily Stewart and Robert Bennet, Nathaniel L. Nathanson Professor of Law Emeritus and former dean of Northwestern Law. At the conclusion of the debate, the winner was determined by which team had swayed the most votes. At the start of the debate, 63 percent of the live audience supported the motion that the electoral college has outlived its usefulness. At the end, 70 percent of the audience supported the motion.

The Newton and Jo Minow Debate Series was established as part of a generous gift from friends and colleagues of Newton N. Minow (JD ’50) to honor his numerous contributions to public and civic life. Minow is the originator of the televised U.S. presidential debates, which inspired the idea to honor his legacy with a permanent debate program at Northwestern Law.

Watch the debate here. See full results here.