As Electors Meet, It’s Time to Fix the Electoral College
As Electors Meet, It's Time to Fix the Electoral College
The President Should Be the Winner of the National Popular Vote
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at Medium.com
From the White House to the courthouse, every elected official in America—Democrat, Republican or independent—has something in common: he or she got more votes than any of the people they ran against.
That adherence to majority rule changes on January 20, as it has five other times in our history. While ballots are still being counted, the final tally is likely to find President-elect Donald Trump trailing Hillary Clinton by close to 3 million votes; he will be the second of our last three Presidents to be elected with less than a majority, indeed less than a plurality, of the popular vote.
That does not make his presidency less legitimate. Like many members of Congress and state legislators who won actual majorities thanks to partisan gerrymandering of their districts, Trump won under the rules of a broken system. But in a nation that thinks of itself as a beacon for democratic governance, the President-elect’s triumph is nonetheless jarring. Trump himself has acknowledged that something is askew, telling interviewers he believes future presidents should be chosen by a popular majority.
Assuming intelligence reveling Russia’s role in destabilizing the 2016 election doesn’t cause a delay or defections, Trump will finalize his win on Monday in the Electoral College. His triumph there will be the product of a deal struck and written into the Constitution more than two centuries ago and effectively refined since then by state laws. It’s time to refine it once again, this time in a way that breaks the dominance of a few “swing” states in our elections and gives every voter in every state an equal voice.
We can do that through the National Popular Vote Compact, an agreement that has been embraced by legislatures in 10 states and the District of Columbia but still has considerable ground to cover before it can be implemented. Add your name here to Common Cause’s petition urging lawmakers in your state to join the National Popular Vote Compact.
A bit of history is in order here. Wary of popular democracy, a radical idea in the 18th century, the nation’s founders fiercely debated the process for selecting the President, ultimately entrusting the job to “electors” selected by the states. Each state was awarded one electoral vote for each of its two U.S. Senate seats and an additional vote for each of its congressional districts. States could then decide how to award those electors. As part of the compromise, southern states included slaves in their population, giving them more congressional districts even as they denied slaves the right to vote. Northern and southern states alike also barred women and in most cases non-landowners from the ballot box.
Today of course, almost every adult citizen over age 18 has the right to vote, protected by law. But the Electoral College endures; although the way electors are chosen has changed many times over our history, now all but two states now award their electors on a winner-take-all basis based on the popular vote in each state. Maine and Nebraska award theirs based on the returns in each congressional district plus two for winning the state overall.
Those winner-take-all rules are state laws, not in the Constitution, and they effectively direct candidates away from “safe” states that are either deep red or true blue; Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump mostly ignored California and Texas respectively because those states were safe. Trump and Clinton spent 94% of their campaign money and post-convention visits in this election in only 12 states; 25 states were ignored and essentially had no role in picking the president.
The National Popular Vote Compact would bring every state and every voter into play. National candidates would be incentivized to campaign all over the nation, not just in today’s “battleground” states.
The compact would take effect once states with 270 electors (an Electoral College majority) pass identical legislation adopting it. Once it’s in effect, presidential electors in participating states would be required to vote for the candidate who wins the national popular vote, regardless of who carried their state’s popular vote.
This is a constitutional and practical way to implement nationwide popular election of the President. Washington, DC and the 10 states already on board have 165 electors, so states with an additional 105 electoral votes must approve the compact before it goes into effect. Polls suggest 70 percent or more of Americans believe the President should be the candidate who wins the most popular votes.
Part of the genius of our Constitution is its built-in flexibility. The National Popular Vote Compact is in keeping with the spirit of our nation’s charter; it will refine the Electoral College for the 21st century, carrying us further toward the “more perfect union,” the Constitution was drafted to provide.
Karen Hobert Flynn is President of Common Cause.