Beyond the Electoral College

Since the Bush-Gore 2000 election reignited interest in abolishing the Electoral College, a National Popular Vote by Interstate Compact (NPVIC) has been a highly touted reform. The NPVIC proposes to achieve a de facto national popular-plurality system. If states controlling 270 electors (sufficient to dictate the outcome) sign an agreement to require their electors to vote for the candidate getting the most citizen votes throughout the nation, regardless of whether or not that candidate carried the state appointing the elector, the president would be the winner of the national popular vote. 

Currently 15 states and Washington DC have signed onto NPVIC, and they collectively control 196 electoral votes.  If most of the states that Biden won narrowly in November—Arizona, Georgia, Minnesota, Michigan, Virginia, and Wisconsin—also became signatory states, the NPVIC could take effect.

In short, a minority of blue states could use the NPVIC to increase chances for future Democratic control of the White House. But such an arrangement would hardly be a consensual electoral reform. Citizens in red states would surely see this as an unconstitutional gimmick that is biased against them, and the Supreme Court would likely agree. Any reform based on an end-run around the Constitution will exacerbate distrust of American democracy among many citizens.

A national popular-plurality vote?

Reformers instead could pursue a straight-forward constitutional amendment that abolishes the Electoral College and replaces it with a national popular-plurality system. Such a system might prompt citizens to believe that they now controlled the presidency, but that belief would likely be short lived, as the popular-plurality system that is widely used for so many other American elections would likely prove dysfunctional for choosing a president. Many of the deficiencies of the College, such as its unequal treatment of citizens, its biases favoring the two major parties and small states, and the outsized role that is given key competitive states would be eliminated, but a huge problem would remain. Someone could become president while getting less than a majority of votes and indeed by attaining only a small plurality of votes—getting as little as, say, 25 percent of the national vote. In short, candidates who appeal to a small base but who are despised by a large majority could frequently win, and distrust in government and the president could increase rather than decline.

In the fragmented nation that America has become, it is likely that a popular-plurality election would result in far greater balkanization than we witnessed in 1860.  That election was conducted under the College’s winner-take-all rules that encouraged people not to waste their votes on fringe candidates, and still Abe Lincoln got less than 40 percent of the popular vote. Such a weak public mandate probably contributed to Southern states secession from the Union.

Today, our politics is said to be polarized between Democrats and Republicans, but survey research suggests that this does not mean that people identify with and support strongly one of the major parties. It is closer to the mark to believe that many citizens simply dislike and distrust one of the major parties more than the other. As the divisions between and within the major parties deepen, and if America continues to fragment into a wide array of identity groups and partisan orientations, we can expect new parties to nominate their own candidates and more insurgent and independent candidates to compete on the belief that they could prevail while winning only a small percentage of votes.

The 28th Amendment

In The Twenty-Eighth Amendment?—a book I published just prior to the election—I speculated that a gaggle of candidates could compete for the presidency in a 2024 national election conducted under popular-plurality rules, and voters could disperse their votes broadly enabling a candidate winning less than 30 percent of the vote to prevail. It seems reasonable to imagine such a result as generating more chaos and worsening the capacity of national government to deal with our enormous political problems.

In that book, I also sketch a better presidential election system.  In the remainder of this essay, I will outline the main features of my proposed alternative to our current systems for nominating and electing presidents. My concern has been to begin, not conclude, a broad national conversation on the issue

I propose abandoning not only our state-centric Electoral College but our state-centric primary system, and replacing them with a preliminary national election employing approval ballots to identify about five finalists for a subsequent national election to be conducted under rank-order voting (ROV).  ROV enables an “instant run-off” in which votes for less supported candidates are transferred to citizens’ second (or other approved but lower choices) who have not been eliminated.  Such balloting and transferring of votes concludes when one candidate achieves a majority—perhaps not of first-place votes but of enough highly-ranked votes to indicate wide (majoritarian) support. Rather than get into the details of that proposal, I shall conclude by discussing the three most important principles that underlie it.

First, the president (along with the vice-president) is the only national official who has a national constituency. No political leader affects the lives of each and every citizen more than the president. Therefore, he or she should be elected by and accountable to all American citizens, not to our states as collective entities. State interests are represented well enough by other features of the American federal system.

Second, all citizens should have equal voting rights and have their vote count equally with those of every other American citizen. National registration and identification rules and other such national provisions should eliminate efforts by the states to curtail voting by some citizens in efforts to undermine the expression and understanding of dominant citizen preferences throughout the country.  Citizens in Iowa and New Hampshire should have no greater role in the nomination of presidential candidates than citizens living elsewhere. Citizens in competitive (or “in play”) states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Nevada should be courted no more than those living in “safe states,” as the votes of each citizen should matter equally.

Third, voters should be encouraged to bring communitarian orientations to the casting of their ballots, and the way ballots are constructed can have an impact in promoting such mind-sets. Currently, voters can only indicate their first choice when they vote in a caucus or in a primary, and they can only express their first choice when they vote in the general election. How ballots are now constructed prompts voters to ask themselves “which of these candidates do I most want?” rather than ask themselves “Who among these candidates do we trust?” Enabling citizens to express their multiple choices during the preliminary election should prompt them to express their approval or disapproval of each candidate. Using such approval ballots would assure that only candidates trusted by a national majority would be under consideration in the final election. And giving citizens the opportunity to rank-order the final, widely-approved, candidates, should result in getting a president whose values most accord with a majority of citizens. 

The overall goal here is to have all American citizens act as the framers envisioned the electors in the College acting. But with democratic values now widely proclaimed, choosing the president would no longer be a task reserved for an elite group of electors. Rather all citizens should be electors. Rather than seeing primary elections as an opportunity to express their single self-interested, ideological, or identity-based choice, citizens could come to see their role as being a member of a national community engaged in the collective task of locating well-qualified and widely-trusted nominees concerned with addressing our common problems and achieving our common goals.  Rather than seeing the final election as an opportunity to vote against the candidate or party they most disdain, they would see that election as a chance to express their multiple values in a manner that encourages all finalists to run on platforms that are as inclusive of all Americans as possible.

2 thoughts on “Beyond the Electoral College

  1. The Founders created the Electoral College, but 48 states eventually enacted state winner-take-all laws.

    The U.S. Constitution says “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . .”
    The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

    The normal way of changing the method of electing the President is by state legislatures with governors making changes in state law.

    Historically, major changes in the method of electing the President have come about by state legislative action. For example, the people had no vote for President in most states in the nation’s first election in 1789. However, now, as a result of changes in the state laws governing the appointment of presidential electors, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states.

    In 1789, only 3 states used the winner-take-all method (awarding all of a state’s electoral vote to the candidate who gets the most votes in the state). However, as a result of changes in state laws, the winner-take-all method is now currently used by 48 of the 50 states.

    In 1789, it was necessary to own a substantial amount of property in order to vote; however, as a result of changes in state laws, there are now no property requirements for voting in any state.

    In other words, neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, that the voters may vote and the winner-take-all method) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation’s first presidential election.

    The normal process of effecting change in the method of electing the President is specified in the U.S. Constitution, namely action by the state legislatures. This is how the current system was created, and this is the built-in method that the Constitution provides for making changes. The abnormal process is to go outside the Constitution and amend it.

    States can, and have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years. Maine (in 1969) and Nebraska (in 1992) chose not to have winner-take-all laws

    The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding a state’s electoral votes.

    The National Popular Vote bill is 73% of the way to guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes and the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

    It requires enacting states with 270 electoral votes to award their electoral votes to the winner of the most national popular votes.

    All votes would be valued equally in presidential elections, no matter where voters live.

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