The Corner

The Real Presidential Election Is Today

Commentators have been arguing about whether Barack Obama does or does not have a mandate in his second term. But technically, Obama hasn’t even been reelected yet.

More than a month after millions of ballots were cast on November 6, America still does not have a president-elect. As far as the Constitution is concerned, the real presidential election is today. It will occur among 538 individuals who have been elected to attend 51 separate meetings of electors (one in each state capital, plus the District of Columbia).

These electors don’t have to elect Obama. They could choose Mitt Romney. Or Marco Rubio. Or Hillary Clinton.

The electors won’t do this, of course. It is very likely that each elector will vote as he or she pledged, and it is certain they will overwhelmingly reelect Obama. Presidential electors routinely follow voters’ expectations. Indeed, fewer than two dozen electors have been indisputably “faithless” over the course of 57 American presidential elections. Even in 2000, after the uproar over George W. Bush’s victory, not a single Bush elector changed his vote.

Most Americans know that electors generally act predictably. What they often don’t know — or what’s at least contrary to much conventional wisdom — is that the current presidential-election process serves America well. It may also come as a surprise that the system is perilously close to elimination.

The threat to the Electoral College comes from a well-funded, California-based group called National Popular Vote (NPV). Its supporters consider a constitutional amendment eliminating the Electoral College too difficult to achieve. Instead, NPV has been pushing state legislation that is an admittedly imaginative — though legally questionable — end-run around the amendment process.

Our Founders created the Electoral College as a state-by-state method of electing the president and vice president. NPV’s plan would have states ignore their own in-state results and instead award their presidential electors to the candidate with the most votes nationwide. No state would do this on its own, so NPV legislation only takes effect if adopted by states with at least 270 electoral votes between them. Today, NPV is nearly halfway to that goal: Eight states plus D.C. have adopted it, for a combined total of 132 electoral votes.

NPV would not formally eliminate the Electoral College. But in practice, the system would become meaningless, replaced with a direct-election system. This would be a radical change for American politics and government, representing one more step away from constitutional federalism — America’s unique system of states — and toward centralized national power.

Much of the argument for NPV rests on the assumption that the Electoral College is insufficiently democratic. Yet as it operates today, America’s presidential system reflects the ideals of democracy and reflects our longstanding commitment to federalism.

#more#In November, we experienced the “democratic” side of this process: Each state conducted its own purely democratic election among individuals within its own borders. Today, we experience the “federalist” side: The states’ electors will cast their votes in an election among the states themselves. This unique combination of democracy and federalism, like much else in our constitution, provides the stability that allows Americans to enjoy peace, prosperity, and liberty.

The Electoral College imposes a basic requirement of geographic balance on presidential campaigns and national political parties. Intense regional support is not enough. Winning just the big cities is not enough. Because candidates must win simultaneous, multiple-state victories, they must earn relatively broad support. As the campaign progresses, candidates shift their focus toward the states that are most balanced politically.

NPV would wipe away state lines for presidential campaigns and elections. Campaigns would feel the need to raise and spend even more money in order to blanket the nation with television commercials. At the same time, it would become possible for regional and perhaps more radical candidates to win the White House. And because a vote in, say, Chicago could directly cancel out a vote from anywhere else in the country, Americans would demand greater federal control over election administration.

In this last election, the Obama campaign knew it was not enough to win a majority of popular votes from major urban areas alone. Such a strategy could work in a direct democracy — it might well be the most efficient way to run a campaign. Yet our state-by-state election process demands more. The Obama campaign understood it had to win in the states, and it built an unprecedented grassroots network to do just that.

Most state legislative sessions begin in a matter of weeks, and NPV lobbyists are already hard at work trying to convince state legislators to sidestep the Electoral College.

Today we should remember that, the Electoral College, though frequently misunderstood, serves America well. NPV’s campaign should be rejected.

— Trent England is a vice president of policy at the Freedom Foundation. Tara Ross is the author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College.


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