From Hillary Clinton’s email scandal to allegations of Russia’s hacking the the DNC, the 2016 American presidential election dominated the news cycle for well over a year. Characteristically, more controversy unfolded as the votes were cast. On Tuesday, November 8, Donald Trump won the presidency despite losing the popular vote. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton received 61,329,657 votes to Trump’s 60,530,867. This outcome led many in politics, journalism, and civil society to question the role of the Electoral College in a modern democracy.
Retired Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, an outspoken Clinton supporter, was one of the most prominent voices to emerge in this discussion. Just after the 2016 election, she pleaded, “In my lifetime, I have seen two elections where the winner of the general election did not win the popular vote. Every American should be guaranteed that their vote counts.” Boxer turned her words into action when she proposed a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the Electoral College. The amendment, she knew, would have very little chance of passing, as it requires a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate. Boxer used her calls for the amendment as a tool to ridicule Trump, citing his tweet from 2012 in which he declared, “The Electoral College is a disaster for democracy.”
State legislatures have also challenged the Electoral College system. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) was founded after George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, despite losing the popular vote. Immediately after its conception, Washington, Oregon, and California adopted the Compact. The NPVIC will go into effect after the participating states represent a majority of Electoral College votes. Once that threshold is crossed, the participating states will award all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote, circumventing the Electoral College. Currently, the NPVIC has been adopted by states that represent one hundred sixty-five Electoral College votes, which is 61.1 percent of the total votes needed. Both Pennsylvania and Michigan are considering adopting the measure. The two states have twenty and sixteen Electoral College votes respectively, a sizeable step towards the 270 electoral votes that the NPVIC needs to go into effect.
Explicit in many of the pleas for abolishing the Electoral College is that direct democracy is more modern than America’s current system. During the chaotic aftermath of Trump’s election, Boxer said, “The Electoral College is an outdated, undemocratic system that does not reflect our modern society, and it needs to change immediately.” Mark Stern, an outspoken proponent of LGBTQ rights and the NPVIC, wrote in response to Trump’s victory, “states are a collection of human people, not electors, and the president they choose represents all of them. Abolishing the Electoral College would be a good way to recognize this basic fact of a modern constitutional democracy.”
Switzerland’s direct democracy provides a case study of what such a system could look like. The direct role of the people in Swiss democracy is evident in Switzerland’s four-step federal legislative process. First, a bill is written by experts with extensive knowledge of the fields they are writing in. Then NGOs, canton governments, and political parties propose amendments to the bill. After amendments are proposed, both chambers of the federal government discuss and debate the legislation behind closed doors, before opening the discussion to the public. The final step is where the Swiss model varies the most from that of the United States. After both chambers of the federal government agree on an amended version of the bill, the majority of the electorate can veto the law within a span of three months through a popular referendum. To trigger a referendum, fifty thousand citizens must sign a petition demanding one. Incredibly, that number is only six percent of the population, making the referendum a powerful tool for the electorate to override the legislature.
Swiss democracy is also more direct because of the limited power of the executive branch. Presidential elections in Switzerland lack America’s pageantry, mostly due to the fact that Switzerland has seven acting presidents at any given time. These seven comprise the Federal Council. In fact, unbeknownst to most of Europe, Switzerland elected Doris Leuthard, the minister of the environment, to be president in December 2016. There are two reasons that elections like Leuthard’s go unnoticed. First, Swiss presidents serve until they resign, so elections happen irregularly, and thus the country has little anticipatory fanfare around the elections. Second, when elections do happen, they are rarely controversial, owing to the strict standards of the federal council’s composition. Within the seven positions, all of Switzerland’s seven regions must be represented, the sexes must be “close to equal,” and each of Switzerland’s linguistic regions must be represented. Although there is a rotating position called the “president,” the position is ceremonial and all seven vote on each decision. Federal Councilor Moritz Leuenberger is the head of the Departments of Energy, Transportation, and Communications. After fifteen years of service, he is deeply familiar with the power of the electorate. Asked which governing body controls Switzerland, he replied, “The voters do. According to the constitution, they are the supreme power.”
Although direct democracy in Switzerland presents an interesting alternative to our current system, it has not ensured a more “modern” democracy, as has been argued by several proponents of abolishing the Electoral College. In 2010, the Populist Swiss Party launched its campaign for the “deportation initiative.” The bill would authorize the “automatic and immediate” deportation of foreign citizens convicted for multiple criminal offenses. Offenses ranged from egregious acts such as murder and rape to more innocuous offenses, such as unarmed burglary and welfare fraud. The Populist Party argued for a five- to fifteen-year ban, depending on the severity of the offenses. The amendment achieved tremendous early success with its famous slogan—“Open the door to abuse? No!”—that was paired with a controversial depiction of a white sheep kicking a black sheep out of the country. But before the bill was opened up to the electorate, legislators from both chambers of the federal government noticed that the bill was in direct violation of Article 8 of the European Convention for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which dictates that no European country can send its citizens back to a country in which they would be at the risk of torture or serious harm. Thus, legislators added a “hardship clause” amendment to the bill, which stipulates more lenient treatment for people facing harm in their countries of origin. On November 28, 2010, the amendment passed with 52.9 percent of the vote. In adopting an isolationist policy, Switzerland followed the desires of its electorate, which are decidedly not what Boxer or Slate, two progressive democrats, would consider “modern.”
On February 28, just over a month after Trump’s inauguration, an amended, more radical version of the “deportation initiative” passed onto the general election stage. The core of the original law remained, but the new initiative sought to be incorporated into the constitution. Furthermore, additional serious offenses such as arson and counterfeiting were added to the list of offenses. More unnerving, however, was the initiative’s addition of pedestrian offenses, such as speeding, into the list of deportable offenses. Perhaps most disconcerting, the new deportation initiative sought to weaken the power of the “hardship clause.” Nadine Masshardt, a parliamentarian from the left-wing Social Democratic Party, lamented, “immigrants’ children, often born and raised in Switzerland, will be deported to their parents’ country of origin because of two minor criminal offenses. This goes way beyond what voters wanted to achieve when they approved the 2010 deportation initiative.”
Ultimately, the amendment failed, only securing 41.1 percent of the fifty percent needed to pass. A poll conducted by SRF, a Swiss radio station, revealed that the majority of Switzerland’s population did not back the bill because of its pervading racist and xenophobic overtones. In the span of seven years, Switzerland’s direct democracy facilitated a vote both for and against a xenophobic bill. In Switzerland, direct democracy allows its people to pursue their ideals, but it does not change what those ideals are. With Switzerland as a case study, Boxer and Slate should not expect abolishing the Electoral College to eliminate populist sentiments that they believe are responsible for Trump’s electoral success.