There have only been five elections resulting in a candidate winning the presidency despite not enjoying a plurality of votes, however few, there is something deeply anathema to a democracy when such occurrences happen. In fact, the idea of the popular vote deciding the outcome of the presidential race has traditionally enjoyed wide support from a majority of Americans (though recent Gallup polls suggest that Republicans have soured on the idea). Additionally, aside from the reservations most people have about elections won by popular vote losers, there are the unintended consequences that the Framers could not have predicted when they created the Electoral College. A topic discussed in more detail further down. Doing away with the Electoral College by conventional means, amending the Constitution, would require the herculean task of getting a super majority in both houses of Congress, a non-starter in the increasingly partisan times we live in, or a Constitutional Convention called by two-thirds of state legislatures, also unlikely for similar reasons.
The Alternative Solution
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPV) isn’t just a bright idea on paper, it’s an agreement already voted and agreed upon by the legislative bodies of 10 states (CA, HI, IL, MA, MD, NY, NJ, RI, VT, WA) and the District of Columbia. One that would circumvent the necessity of seeking a Constitutional Amendment. The Constitution already gives states the power to determine how to distribute their electoral votes. It’s why Maine and Nebraska do so by congressional district, rather than the winner-take-all method preferred by the other 48. The NPV makes use of that power and distributes electoral votes based on the popular vote.
Essentially, it is an agreement among states that their electoral votes will go to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote, regardless of who the majority of their citizens voted for. So, for example, if a majority of New Yorkers voted for the Democratic candidate, but the Republican candidate won the national popular vote, then New York would cast it’s 29 electoral votes for the Republican candidate.
NPV cannot go into effect until enough states enter the Compact equaling 270 electoral votes, the amount necessary by the Electoral College to declare a winner. Currently, the ten states (plus D.C.) have collectively 165 electoral votes. What is needed, is for enough states totaling at least 105 electoral votes to join the Compact.
Of the holdouts, there are 12 states (96 electoral votes) that have passed NPV in at least one house. When asked about NPV’s prospects with these states, Senior Consultant for National Popular Vote, Patrick Rosenstiel said “[NPV] continues to be a viable possibility between now and the 2020 presidential election in each of these states and more” adding that “the Compact has passed at least one chamber… most recently the Arizona House and the Oklahoma Senate.”
Of the ten states that adopted NPV, since 1988, all have supported the Democratic presidential nominee. Despite the optics that that presents, Mr. Rosenstiel was quick to point out that NPV is “today and always has been a non-partisan movement of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents” and in 2016 “there were 154 Republican sponsors of the National Popular Vote bill and 162 Democrats in the various states it was introduced.” Bipartisan support on a state level will be necessary to pass the bill. Swing states enjoy a variety of boons because of their political competitiveness (discussed in further detail below), which make passage of NPV in those states a daunting task. The Compacts viability is real, but it will take its adoption by traditionally Republican states to ensure its future.
The Compact represents the best chance for ameliorating the unfairness of the Electoral College. Much of the press dedicated to fighting the current administration’s policies focuses on politics at a federal level. But the sort of activism needed to better NPV’s chances is going to have to take place on a local level. “Write, e-mail, call your state House members and state senators,” Mr. Rosenstiel says, “demand reform.” Find out who represents you within your state and let your representative know that you believe all voters should have an equal say in who leads this country.
The 2020 election is less than four years away if we believe that every citizen matters, if we believe that democracy is healthiest when the will of the majority is rewarded, then the onus of changing our current system is on us.
Complacency on this issue could have increasingly dire consequences for the country’s political health. Voter participations has always lagged behind other modern democracies, but of more pressing concern is the disparity of voting power and funds directed towards a small group of competitive states. The Founders created the Electoral College through a series of compromises, meaning it wasn’t the best solution, it was the solution that worked. For all its imperfections, it is an institution that has endured, and like all things that endure, the longer they last, the harder they become to change.
The Unintended Consequences
Consider two hypothetical voters. One in Wyoming, and one in California. Both are motivated, both vote, and yet, the power of each of their votes is wildly disproportionate. Since state populations are divided by electoral votes, and electoral votes are granted based on the number of representatives of each state, California’s population of 39 million people gets divided by 55 electoral votes. In other words, one electoral vote in California represents about 712,000 people. On the other hand, Wyoming’s population of 586,107 gets divvied up between 3 electoral votes, meaning one electoral vote represents about 195,000 people. Put yet another way, voters from “The Equality State” enjoy 3x the voting power over Californians.
Now let’s step back from the question of voting power by state, and consider the actual locations visited by both the Clinton and Trump campaigns in the final months of the election. If we measure from September 5th, Labor Day typically being considered the start date of the general election, to November 8th, there were 166 events in 20 states held by both campaigns. If we further divide these events by locations, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and North Carolina account for 107 of those visits. Meaning that 64% of the general election was held in 5 states.
Well-informed readers already know the outsized influence of swing states on the election, but a 2004 study by FairVote acutely highlights the growing problem of that influence. Not only are the number of battleground states shrinking, in 1960 there were 24 states up for grabs, as compared to 13 in 2004, but the concerns of those states dominate the national conversation at the expense of non-competitive states. In past elections, ethanol fuel, a chief concern among Iowa farmers, was aggressively campaigned on despite its lack of importance to most of the country. More recently, coal, an industry that employs less people nationwide than Arby’s, became a cornerstone issue for the Trump campaign and the strategy by which he turned Democrat strongholds red. A problem with consequences on a global scale, as made abundantly clear by President Trump’s recent decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement. President Trump’s decision doesn’t just neglect America’s international partners but disregards the desires of the vast majority of Americans (including 51% of Republicans), as well as, the support of major American companies. Sacrificing America's future and place in the world by capitulating to the wishes of voters in coal-producing states.
It’s more than just the president’s bully pulpit that swing states enjoy; their competitive status incentivizes presidents to allocate more federal grants to them than non-competitive states. Swing states are rewarded with 7.6% more federal grant money than other states. That margin grows even wider during election years when swing states receive 9% more grants and 7% more grant money than non-competitive states. Also, “states that are highly competitive in terms of politics are twice as likely to get presidential disaster declarations than noncompetitive states.” Another study cited in the previous link also lays bare the naked campaigning by disaster declarations. Election years see an increase in disaster declarations and then fall precipitously in non-election years. A president’s legacy is largely driven by their ability to get re-elected, or in cases where they’ve reached their term limit, to get their parties chosen successor elected. But unlike the restrictions members of Congress face, the unique function of the Electoral College, and a president’s ability to distribute federal funds allow a particular type of pork-barrel politics that benefits only a few states. This should be a bipartisan issue, presidents from both parties are guilty of using tax dollars as campaign tools. Tax dollars are entrusted to our elected leaders to be used based on need. The current system incentivizes the use of those funds to be used as a bribe for those few competitive states left.
Finally, the data on voter turnout reveals dramatic differences between swing states and safe states, and another damning indictment on the Electoral College. Participation in presidential elections is greater in competitive states than non-competitive states, and that trend is increasing. In 1996, swing states and safe states shared almost identical voter turnout numbers (51.5% to 51.4%), but in 2012 that difference widened 7.4 points. In this past election, the ten most competitive states averaged a turnout of 66%, while the 40 other states had an average turnout of 60%. While there are many factors into considering why some states have higher voter turnout than others (all-mail states like Washington, Oregon, and Colorado averaged 69% voter participation), the most significant factor remains political competitiveness.
Whether for better or for ill, the Electoral College is the mechanism we have for electing presidents. Directly confronting that institution would entail an amendment, a process that, currently, seems far out of reach. What the NPV so cleverly does, is work within the current framework, and simply retools the way electoral votes are normally distributed.
The idea that one person equals one vote should appeal to all political spectrums, though as mentioned earlier, more and more Republicans are becoming skittish of the popular vote. They shouldn’t, not just for esoteric arguments about democracy, but because the Republican party can be made a victim of the Electoral College just as easily. While it’s true that of the five presidential candidates that won the popular vote and lost the presidency, all were Democrats; The same fate could have easily befallen President Bush. In the 2004 election, if John Kerry had won 60,000 more votes in Ohio he would be President, despite Bush’s 3 million more votes. The problem of voting power dynamics isn’t one relegated to just California and New York; the worth of a Texan vote is one of the lowest in the country. If you need it framed another way, voters in Vermont have greater voting power than those in Texas. It’s just as unfair for Wyoming voters to have a greater say than Californians, as it is for Vermonters to have one over Texans.
Another argument commonly made, is that if the country switched to the popular vote, rural voters would be ignored for highly populated urban areas. First, if it unfair to favor urban voters over rural voters, then why is the current system any fairer? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Or more appropriately, one person should equal one vote regardless of where they call home. Secondly, Trump won rural voters by significant margins, but most of his campaigning, and especially in the final months, was also done in urban populated areas. So even in the current system, rural voters get bypassed for places where populations are concentrated.
Maybe the most convincing argument to be made though would be the potential to bring more moderating forces into politics. If candidates are forced to appeal to all voters equally, they will be forced to appeal with a broader, more inclusive agenda.
And if none of that is convincing, then maybe the novelty of finally having something in common with President Trump will:
When not writing about politics, John can be found riding the F train while displaying perfect subway etiquette. He WILL lean on the pole, but only if the train is lightly populated and no one has laid claim to it.
COPYRIGHT MILLENNIAL POLITICS LLC 2017