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Support for Fixing Undemocratic Institutions

November 12, 2020

American Political Institutions are Dangerously Undemocratic. When do people support fixing them?

by Colin Cepuran 

Popular commentators and some political elites are considering proposals to restructure American legislative institutions to make them more democratic and majoritarian. Political scientists have occasionally noted that America’s Constitution makes it easy for a small, white minority to block and write legislation, we actually know relatively little about whether Americans think those roadblocks to majority rule are fair. Given increasing elite calls for abolishing the electoral college, admitting more states, and generally making political institutions more small-d democratic, understanding Americans’ support for these reforms show whether these proposals are pipe dreams, or real political possibilities. Thus, I proceeded with a research project that asked two questions that are rarely considered in American political research: First, how popular are proposals to reform political institutions to make them more democratic? Second, how

For my project, I collected Roper Center survey data on the two most commonly-surveyed questions that could make American electoral institutions more democratic: (1) replacing the Electoral College with the popular vote, and (2) admitting new states to the union (almost always Puerto Rico). I examined how average levels of support for those proposals changed over time, and whether or not they broke down along partisan lines.

Proposals to Abolish the Electoral College are Actually Becoming Less Popular

While the growing interest in replacing the Electoral College with the popular vote can make it seem like the proposal is getting more popular, that actually isn’t the case. In figure 1, I show the average levels of support for replacing the Electoral College with the popular vote, depicted over time. While the trend is fairly slight, the direction is clear: fewer Americans are, over time, expressing interest in abolishing the electoral college. Support for reform was, and remains, quite high—indeed, higher than I expected, given Americans’ supposed Constitutional reverence—but it has been steadily decreasing since the late 1970s.

1replacing electoral college with popular vote

Figure 1: Support for replacing the Electoral College with the Popular Vote is decreasing over time. Dotted lines depict dates of presidential elections.

Those dynamics, however, aren’t exhibited among all Americans equally. This makes sense: the electoral college overwhelmingly favors the votes of white, rural, and Republican Americans. While I only broke down these approval measures by partisanship, I found strong partisan differences growing over time. As can be seen in figure 2, prior to the 1980 elections, partisan attitudes toward Electoral College reform were indistinguishable. Since then, however, Republicans have become far more opposed to abolishing the Electoral College: essentially all of the growing opposition to Electoral College reform has been generated by Republicans’ polarization on the issue. Unsurprisingly, differences emerged strongly after the 2000 and 2016 elections, showing the strong partisan polarization on the issue, to match polarized elite rhetoric.


chart of replaceing electoral vote with popular vote

Figure 2: Strong partisan polarization on support for Electoral College reform, especially after close elections.

When Do People Support the Electoral College?

That partisan polarization, interestingly, is not constant: in the days leading up to the 2008 elections, partisan differences were slight, and in the weeks before the 2012 election, they were actually shrinking as Election Day grew closer. While I lack sufficient data to be able to identify exactly why, I suspect that most committed Democrats and Republicans don’t believe that their candidate will need the Electoral College to win, and thus, are less concerned about its unfair effects until after election day. When it becomes clear that the Electoral College has tilted the playing field in favor of a Republican candidate, Republicans become, in the days immediately after the Election, more hostile to reform, whereas Democrats embrace it more strongly.

Why Are These Relationships So Much Less Clear When Statehood is Considered?

After analyzing the dynamics of support for Electoral College reform, I turned my attention to public support for admitting new states in the Union—I found by far the most questions considering admitting Puerto Rico to the Union as a State (see: figure 3). There were fewer surveys, so it is harder to identify clear trends in the data, but it is clear that the American public, in general, is less enthusiastic about admitting Puerto Rico to the Union as a state, but that that opinion fluctuates strongly over time.

chart of admitting Puerto Rico as a state

Figure 3: Support for Admitting Puerto Rico to the Union as a State.

Moreover, there aren’t strong partisan differences in support for admitting Puerto Rico to the Union as a State: indeed, partisan differences are almost invisible throughout my analyses.

chart of admitting puerto rico as a state

Figure 4: Support for Admitting Puerto Rico to the Union as a State, by Partisanship.

Why might this be? There are relatively few observations, again, so it is difficult for me to say precisely why. I have three theories, however. First, and most plausibly, the questions from which I estimated average support for Puerto Rico’s statehood also included proposals for Puerto Rico to remain a territory, or become an independent nation. This multi-dimensional question format could make observing the time- and partisan differences identified above challenging. Second, it is possible that nativism, or white racism, fuel opposition to Puerto Rican statehood, but not amending the electoral college: anger at the inability of American majorities to govern does not, necessarily, mean supporting an inclusive polity. Finally, the absence of the tends observed above here could simply be a product of the times in which the questions were asked. The latest question in my sample as asked in 1999, before the most recent partisan polarization on questions of electoral rules and democratic fairness, which were sparked by the 2000 Presidential Election.

Next Steps

These findings show that some proposals to strongly reform American electoral institutions are quite popular, but that that popularity can be shaped by individuals’ senses that they might be politically advantaged or disadvantaged by the proposal. The differences I examine here are partisan, but partisanship is a powerful and complex force in American politics. Many scholars have found that Americans’ partisan commitments and hostilities actually reflect their allegiance to racial/ethnic groups, economic classes, or even place-based identities.  The findings that I have here cannot discriminate between any of those possibilities. 

So, in an experiment in progress with Cornell Government Department Associate Professor David Bateman, we work to figure out which of these considerations Americans’ attitudes toward Electoral College reform is sensitive to. We also will work to identify whether the broad popularity of the popular vote flows from a broad public commitment to majoritarian democracy (not shared by Republicans), or by individuals sense that people like them (be it partisans or any other social identity label) would benefit from reform.

Our findings will have a bearing on whether the increasing calls for electoral reform documented at the beginning of this post might translate to real political change. American political institutions are only some of the innumerable barriers between Americans and genuine representative democracy. In this project, we’re beginning to get a sense of how high they are.