Opponents of the Electoral College have conjured up yet another scheme by which they hope to undermine America’s unique system of electing presidents. If they are successful, the Electoral College could essentially be eliminated at the behest of a handful of states, without the bother of a constitutional amendment.
As Ronald Reagan might say, “There they go again!”
This latest anti-Electoral College effort, the Campaign for the National Popular Vote, was announced on February 23. Five states are currently considering the NPV plan: Illinois, Colorado, Missouri, California, and Louisiana. The Colorado state senate acted on the bill quickly, approving it on April 14.
If enacted, the NPV bill would create an interstate compact among consenting states. Each participating state would agree to allocate its entire slate of electors to the winner of the national popular vote. The compact would go into effect when states representing 270 electoral votes (enough to win the presidency) have agreed to the compact. The eleven most populous states have 271 electoral votes among them, and could thus make this change on their own. If one populous state failed to enact the plan, it could easily be replaced by a handful of medium-sized states.
NPV touts the ease of this change as one of the plan’s best features. Electoral College opponents have tried and failed many times in their efforts to obtain a constitutional amendment. Such a process requires the consent of two thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the states. It’s much easier to obtain the consent of a mere eleven states. And if eleven states get to change the rules of the presidential-election game, without so much as a nod to the remaining thirty-nine states, then why should NPV supporters care? After all, presidential elections can already be won with the votes of only eleven states. So any unfairness in the NPV plan merely reflects the inherent unfairness of the Electoral College system.
It is true that America’s presidential-election system technically could allow the eleven largest states to pick the president. But the incentives inherent in the Electoral College work in the opposite direction, making such an outcome extremely unlikely. The Electoral College encourages presidential candidates to build national coalitions of voters. The compromises that a presidential candidate would have to make to obtain the votes of, say, California and Texas, guarantee that any candidate who manages to obtain the votes of the eleven largest states will also obtain the votes of a majority of states. The last presidential candidate to accomplish this feat was Reagan in 1984, and he obtained the votes of every state except Minnesota. (He also lost the District of Columbia.)
NPV’s legislation, on the other hand, does not ensure national coalition building. To the contrary, the proposal gives the eleven largest states incentives to work against the remaining states: Getting rid of the Electoral College would allow presidential candidates to win with positions that are not at all in the interest of less populous states. To be sure, and as NPV points out, candidates now focus largely on battleground states, but the only reason other states aren’t battlegrounds is because they are, by and large, happy with one of the candidates positions. Moreover, so-called “safe” and “swing” states change constantly. As recently as 1988, California voted consistently Republican. Texas was a safe Democrat state until it began voting Republican in 1980.
Proponents of national presidential elections point out that the president almost always wins the popular vote anyway. But the question is how these votes were won. Changing the system would change the way in which presidential candidates campaign. NPV proponents make much of their slogan “Every Vote Equal.” It’s a nice sounding slogan which appeals to a sense of fairness. But if every vote counted exactly the same, the system would end up being quite unfair to the less populous states. The true question here is whether the nation should vote in a state-by-state presidential election or a national presidential election. Changing from one process to the other would have significant ramifications.
John F. Kennedy once stated that America’s presidential election system is like a solar system of governmental power. If one aspect of the solar system is changed, others will inevitably be impacted. If the gravitational pull of the sun is changed, then the Earth will be pulled out of its orbit. In the same way, if the Electoral College is removed from the nation’s system of electing presidents, then other aspects of the political system will inevitably change. For example, the two-party political system will likely be seriously undermined. Also, presidential candidates will have less incentive to build national coalitions, and they will instead campaign primarily in high population areas.
If NPV succeeds in passing its legislation, citizens living in a majority of states will likely have been denied the opportunity to have a say in the decision about whether America will live in this political solar system or a new one. If getting rid of the Electoral College is such a great idea, then why do its proponents seem to want to bypass the people in enacting it? If it is such a great idea, and one that will serve our interests, why not go national with their case? Apparently they’re not so into voting after all.
–Tara Ross is the author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College.