Will America abandon the Electoral College to choose its presidents?
For well over two centuries, few Americans have questioned the unique technicalities of how the country selects its presidents. Yet in the wake of the 2000 presidential election — and even louder after those held in 2016, when tallies handed electoral victory to candidates who had fallen short in the popular vote — a movement to undo the system has garnered attention and rapidly picked up support.
With a little less than a year and a half until November 2020, the United States appears closer than ever before to abandoning the time-honored system of electors. The most successful branch of this movement is built around the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), a deal among states to award their electors to whichever candidate polls the most votes nationwide. States whose legislatures have signed on have done so on the condition that the arrangement will only take effect if enough others join to form a combined tally of 270 electoral votes, the minimum number necessary to win an election.
In recent weeks, Oregon’s legislatures voted to join the pact. And if proposals meet with final approval, it will become the 15th state to join, leaving the effort only 74 electoral votes short of its goal. While the movement is likely to encounter more resistance as it creeps nearer to the 270 mark, it has re-ignited debate and discussion over the merits and flaws of the Electoral College, its underpinnings, and how American politics would change if it were put aside for a nominally simple popular vote.
Let’s Make a Deal
Many of those clamoring to elect presidents using a popular vote have focused on President Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. Those following this rallying call have paid little attention to details in their bashing of the College, with many members of the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates using a broad stroke to call for it to be scrapped. Senator Elizabeth Warren has called for a Constitutional Amendment that, given today’s political layout, would be a near-impossible task, and the only way to categorically do away with the College.
Saul Anuzis serves as a consultant to the group advocating for states to adopt the NPVIC. His status as former chairman of Michigan’s Republican Party and former member of the RNC adds bi-partisan cachet to the movement, which so far has only been approved by statehouses controlled by Democrats.
A passionate proponent of the Compact, he is quick to differentiate between the plan he backs and efforts to do away with the College entirely.
“The Interstate Compact is a federalist approach that preserves the Electoral College; it just changes how they are allocated,” he told Hamodia. “The Founders never debated the current system and they didn’t want it. What the Constitution says is that state legislatures have the right to choose electors, and what we are proposing is consistent with that. What a lot of the Democrats like Warren and Harris are supporting would need a constitutional amendment and I would not support it. What we want is Constitutional and leaves control in the states.”
While the Compact would indeed keep the Electoral College in place, it would drastically reduce the system’s importance, allowing for the result of the popular vote to win the day. Defenders of the present method criticize it as an underhanded strategy to upend what has become part and parcel of presidential elections.
“It’s essentially an end run around the constitutional amendment process,” Tara Ross, author of a book on the virtues of the Electoral College and one of its most strident defenders nationally, told Hamodia. “The Compact would create a lot of problems and they know that, but it’s the easiest way they found to effectively eliminate the Electoral College.”
A College With No Mortarboards
Despite a great many clandestine-sounding details about the appointment of electors, and when and how they meet to determine who will be the next president of the United States, the Electoral College is pretty straightforward.
Each state is allotted a number of electoral votes commensurate with the members in its delegation to the House of Representatives plus two more, ostensibly corresponding to the state’s two senators. Those extra two are a means of accomplishing one of the key purposes of the College — to protect small states from having their needs and preferences drowned out by the din of larger states.
The Constitution gives each state the ability to decide how slates of electors will be chosen, but for more than 200 years the vast majority of states have linked this selection directly to whoever wins the state’s popular vote. With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, they are awarded on a “winner-take-all” basis.
In addition to leaving open the possibility of a split between the candidate whom the majority of citizens vote for and the one actually chosen for the presidency, the system has had a profound impact on campaigns which, for decades, have largely ignored states perceived as “safe” by either political party, concentrating on a small group of high-ticket “swing states,” most prominently Florida, Ohio, and Michigan.
An election decided by the popular vote, many presume, would require candidates to divide their time more evenly throughout the country, leading to the novel sight of Republican hopefuls shaking hands in conservative pockets of New York, and their Democratic counterparts doing the same in left-wing corners of Alabama.
A frequent criticism of such a change focuses on the fact that this approach would likely focus most of the attention on large cities, ignoring more sparsely populated areas of the country, not only by whistle stops, but ultimately in the making of policy as well.
Striking a Balance
As with many aspects of government set out in the Constitution, the Electoral College’s quirks are the result of attempts to balance competing concerns and positions among the delegates who met in 1787 in Philadelphia, leaving its usefulness today a matter of debate.
The Constitutional Convention considered several options for electing the president, including the two extremes of election by the House of Representatives and popular election. The first raised fears, among other concerns, of giving Congress too much power over the executive branch. The second option would have certainly raised technical challenges in the world of the late 18th century, but even more so the Founding Fathers feared what direct democracy might produce.
While the nobles and monarchs who ruled Europe at the time could fairly be criticized for favoring their own interests and stifling upward mobility, on the whole they provided stability, consistency, and in many cases the steady hand that some felt could only come from a certain degree of noblesse oblige. The delegates were nearly all members of the group of revolutionaries who had soundly spurned the idea of hereditary monarchy but, at the same time, they searched for ways to preserve some of the desirable qualities of that system.
James Madison famously articulated such concerns in Federalist Papers No. 10, where he warned of the evils of “an interested and overbearing majority” who, motivated by “some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse of the rights of other citizens,” would end up oppressing all those who were not of like mind. These concerns, shared by many of Madison’s fellows, would be termed some 40 years later “the tyranny of the majority” by the famed chronicler and analyst of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville.
Another area of debate was a demand by smaller states to structure elections in a way that would prevent larger states from dominating the future of the republic.
The delegates’ solution was the Electoral College. The concept of electors to choose an executive was not new; the sovereigns of the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Poland had been chosen that way for centuries. Yet, the group that would select America’s president would not be noblemen. They would be selected for their task by the legislature of each state, a plan that warded off the dangers of factionalism and strengthened the Founding Fathers’ vision of federalism, a system of power-sharing between individual states and the nation as a whole.
The Founding Fathers also felt that a small group that met only in election years would be less susceptible to forming powerful cliques or falling victim to foreign influence, a deep concern that leaders of the young nation had long before Russian hackers raided the DNC.
Alexander Hamilton penned the best-known defense of the system in Federalist Papers No. 68, in which he described in idyllic terms the caste he envisioned would become electors.
“The immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”
The ideal of marble temples peopled with the most enlightened minds of each state, civilly debating the virtues of various presidential candidates, never came to be. By the end of George Washington’s second term, two political parties had emerged, and electors, as today, were chosen for their loyalty to one ticket or the other. Since then, there have been several instances of “faithless electors,” but they have largely changed their voting choice as a protest and none have altered an election since 1796.
Methods of appointing electors varied widely for decades. However, by 1836 only South Carolina had not transitioned to assigning electors based on the state’s popular vote.
These historic shifts and other factors, such as changes in communication technology, have led many to think that switching over to a popular vote has little to do with deviating from the vison of the likes of Hamilton or Madison.
Robert William Bennett, a law professor at Northwestern University who authored a book in the wake of the 2000 election that laid out options for reforming the present system, said that, given historic changes, he did not see the Compact as a deviation from the Founding Fathers’ original plan.
“Asking whether [the NIPVC is] an attempt to circumvent the Electoral College depends on what one means by the Electoral College,” Professor Bennett told Hamodia. “The concept was that electors would meet in separate places and have genuine debates over who would be the next George Washington. So, if one means the way the people who devised the system likely thought it would operate, we abandoned that long ago when political parties arrived on the scene.”
Yet, the Electoral College’s present permutation has no shortage of defenders. Earlier in June, a bipartisan group in Maine’s assembly voted down a bill that would have lent the state’s votes to the NPVIC.
Supporters claim that the Electoral College still addresses the Founding Fathers’ concern that candidates should have to pay attention to less-populated areas.
Last month, Nevada’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, exercised his first veto since taking office earlier this year to prevent his state from joining the Compact, saying it “could diminish the role of smaller states like Nevada in national electoral contests.”
Mrs. Ross, who has been widely interviewed in the media and who has testified in state houses on what she sees as the virtues of the present system, said that, beyond making campaigns more geographically even, the Electoral College remains an effective guard against political polarization.
“It encourages coalition building,” she said. “Presidents have to pay attention to a variety of groups and regions, and not just an area or special interest that favors them. Historically speaking, it has done this … What was designed is an excellent balance, and undoing it could have a lot of unintended consequences.”
Adding that the College still protects minority voices, Mrs. Ross invoked Benjamin Franklin’s quip comparing pure democracy to “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”
Advocates of the Compact are not convinced that the present system pushes candidates to seek a broader appeal. They believe their plan would give far more Americans a voice in presidential elections.
“Four out of five voters live in a state that is decidedly Democrat or Republican, which means that candidates basically ignore at least 40 states. [Under the present system it] doesn’t have to do with whether your state is big or small; the only thing that matters is if you’re a battleground state. Why should anyone want Ohio and Florida to be more important than [another state]?” asked Mr. Anuzis.
Mr. Anuzis went on to detail additional federal funding and programs that several key swing states have received as proof of their favored status.
Another concern raised by defenders of the Electoral College is that the current system makes it difficult for third parties to play a significant role in elections, thereby fortifying the two-party system, which many see as a crucial factor in the nation’s political stability.
Advocates of the popular vote counter that direct election of governors in all 50 states has led to no breakdown of the two major parties. Mr. Anuzis acknowledged the possibility that the shift might empower third parties, but said that was “not necessarily a bad thing.”
“The Democrats today have a wing that is moving in a very progressive direction, which could potentially lead to a split. The same thing might have happened in the 1980s when the Christian right became a very strong voice in the Republican party, but third parties have played an important role in America. Giving them more of a voice is not necessarily a bad thing,” he said.
Professor Bennett supports the concept of shifting to the popular vote, and the plan now being used by the NIPVC is a version of one suggestion that he made in his book. Yet, he feels that the Compact’s supporters are ignoring serious technical obstacles to the practical implementiation of their plan.
“I think there are some problems that the National Popular Vote movement and its supporters don’t acknowledge,” he said. “One is that states have different requirements for voting, so the notion of a national popular vote is a little loose without a federal law to make standards uniform.”
One significant difference Professor Bennett identified is that some states allow felons and former felons to vote, while others allow only former felons to vote, and others permit neither group to cast a ballot. Another potential pitfall that he identified is how results would be viewed if states disagreed on the need for a recount.
“It could be that as they get closer to 270, some people might realize that they have to slow down and iron out some of these problems, but I don’t think there are any simple solutions,” said Professor Bennett.
Another obstacle is that, while the essential debate over the merits of the present system is a complex one, it has largely been turned into a partisan issue, fueled by the fact that the two most recent elections where there was a discrepancy between the electoral and popular votes put Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump in the White House. That being the case, it is also likely that the push towards 270 will slow for Republican-leaning states, only few of which have considered the proposal.
Nevertheless, Mr. Anuzis was optimistic about the NIPVC’s chances of becoming reality.
“It could happen by 2020, but probably more likely by 2024,” he said. “It’s picking up more bi-partisan support and has already been introduced in most states. We’re getting pretty close.”
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