I first encountered Jesse Wegman’s Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College on display at a Half Price Books store soon after the book was published in 2020. My first impression was feeling like the book was unnecessary. I had never heard anyone arguing in favor of the Electoral College, and honestly I didn’t know of anyone who really supported it. I certainly agreed with the title, that the College ought to be abolished, so I felt like reading a book to explain why would be a waste of time. I later changed my mind (granted, after the 2020 election had taken place) and decided that I wanted all the information to make sure my opinion on this debate was an informed one.
This is where I would usually tell you I’m so glad I read this entire book, because it was so fascinating and there is so much more to this than I thought. Well, I am glad I read it, but my first impression wasn’t too far off. We all know, especially after the 2016 election, that the College warps the weight given to the votes of different people. The fact that who becomes President of the country ought to be decided equally by everyone in the country was as obvious before as it is now.
If anything, I’ve learned what the arguments for the College are—and how to refute them. On the off chance that I find myself debating someone over the College’s legitimacy, I will be ready. (For a book dedicated to the topic, this is to be expected.) In fact, I know more now about the history of the Electoral College than I really ever wanted to.
Let the People Pick the President is pretty thorough; nothing overboard like Every Vote Equal, but it did feel like it repeated itself and could have been condensed even from its moderately short length of 260 pages. We learned how the College began (and the events leading up to it) and a lot about James Wilson, the founding father who staunchly opposed it from Day One. Wegman went through how voting has changed over the years and how Birch Bayh was almost able to pass a constitutional amendment abolishing the College in the 1960s but ultimately couldn’t, thanks to the filibuster. Luckily, there is a way around an amendment that might allow us to see a popular vote yet, if only a handful of Republicans may one day agree to it. (If they were to lose the Electoral College but win the popular vote, they actually might.)
Of course, when telling the history of the United States or virtually anything in it, no story is complete without the effects of racism. I had learned about the Three Fifths Compromise in school and I knew it was wrong, but this book is what finally explained to me why it was passed. It was so that while enslaved people obviously could not vote, they counted (as 60% of a person) towards the total population of their states, giving the Southern States great advantages in presidential elections. And even when enslaved people were freed, it was about 50 years until most Black men were able to vote and yet another 50 for Black women. Wegman’s point that the expansion of freedom to everyone often happens in a “two steps forward, one step back” manner gives me some hope as voting rights in our country are under attack today even more than when he was writing the book.
Many Republicans and lawmakers in small or rural states think that the Electoral College benefits them, but it harms everyone in different ways. It’s true that the vote of someone in a small state is worth exponentially more than that of someone in a large urban state, but since those large states get so many electoral votes (although proportionally not enough), presidential candidates often only focus on the large states anyways. And while rural Republicans’ votes are worth more, the millions of Republicans who live in blue states are effectively silenced under the current system.
Perhaps selfishly, as a Pennsylvanian voting in the 2020 election, I felt like there was so much pressure on me to vote and especially to get everyone I know—and more—to vote (blue). I knew that I was in a battleground state and while it was stressful, it was kind of empowering to know that my vote mattered so much. So in this mindset, I was shocked that some of my friends in non-battleground states decided not to vote at all. While I still think my friends ought to have voted (if for no other reason than participating in the down ballot races), Wegman’s book made it more clear to me why my friends felt as though their voices didn’t count. Under a popular vote that wouldn’t have mattered. The Republicans in Pennsylvania and the Democrats in Iowa—they wouldn’t have been silenced.
As you can tell, I didn’t dislike this book. It could have been more concise, but perhaps I didn’t read it as intended. The end of the book contains some great guides on how to respond to both people’s defenses of the Electoral College and their skepticism about a popular vote. (The author specifically places you at the Thanksgiving dinner table debating your uncle.) While it was redundant after having read the book the entire way through, it would definitely be a great reference for anyone not sure how to respond in an argument.
Before reading Let the People Pick the President, I thought it would be an infuriating and frustrating read; abolishing the Electoral College seemed so far away. Thankfully, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact might be a possibility in my lifetime if both Democrats and Republicans continue to fight for it and come equipped with books like this one.