Popularity contest: How to fix presidential politics in time for 2012

August 26, 2011


In 2000, the Electoral College put the wrong person in the White House. Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush took the presidency. In 2004, this came amazingly close to happening again. Bush had a clear edge in the popular vote, but a slight difference in the Ohio outcome would have made John Kerry president.

Ah, the Electoral College. Because a Constitutional amendment would be required to abolish it, and the low-population states would never agree, we are stuck with this anachronism, right?

No. The next president might be chosen solely on the basis of the popular vote, without Constitutional contretemps. This is closer to happening than you – and politicians – might guess.

A nonpartisan organization, National Popular Vote,  has devised a clever end-run of the Electoral College. The Constitution specifies that each state controls the allocation of its electors. Suppose, the founders of National Popular Vote realized, states enacted laws promising to give their entire slates to the winner of the overall national popular vote.

Then whomever gets the most votes becomes president. A straight-up direct popular choice, the way governors, senators and representatives are chosen. No more putting the wrong person in the White House. No more national absurdities like the 2000 Florida recount-of-a-recount.

Just democracy.

Pie in the sky? The model legislation backed by National Popular Vote has already been passed by California, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts and other states representing 132 electoral votes. That’s half what a candidate needs to become president. The new laws contain a clause saying that if states representing 270 electoral votes (the victory number) commit to this plan, then the laws becoming binding – and the next president would be chosen solely by popular vote.

Momentum is building. The people’s-voice appeal of the idea is very strong. As 2012 arrives and the public learns that a true popular vote for the president is within reach, there should be grass-roots support. Any state legislators, or national party officials, who come out opposed to a national popular vote  obviously will be trying to perverse a crony system controlled by insiders.

Consider how a true popular vote for the presidency would change the presidential campaign landscape. California, Texas and New York are America’s most populous states – yet in recent presidential elections, neither candidate spent much time in any of them. The “battleground states” got all the attention, because the quirks of the Electoral College downgrade some states while magnifying others.

In 2008, John McCain spent almost no time in California or New York, Barack Obama spent almost no time in Texas – both hit the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina over and over again. The Electoral College aspects of California, Texas, New York, New England, the Old South,  the upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest states were already in the bag to one party or the other, so popular vote totals in those places – two-thirds of the country! – didn’t matter. Only Florida, Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina existed. On a good day, Missouri existed.

The battleground-state nonsense focuses way too much attention on a few places, while depriving much of the country of its due. Campaigning is distorted. Republican candidates don’t need to learn the concerns of liberals in California and New York; Democratic candidates don’t need to learn the concerns of conservatives in Texas and Arizona. Candidates stoke their party “base” for funds, then pander away in a few battleground states.

It’s a satire of campaigning — and gets worse every presidential election cycles as tools such as ZIP code voting analysis are refined. The unintended, pernicious impacts of the Electoral College just lead to more cynicism about politics.

This was not what the Framers had in mind when they designed the Electoral College. The Framers were nervous about direct election of presidents and of senators, believing many voters lacked access to information about current events. That was a big concern once, but not today. Direct election of senators did not come until 1913, via the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

Popular vote for the Senate has been the rule for a century – but the antiquated Electoral College still chooses the president. The National Popular Vote idea ends this anachronism without a minimum of travail.

Check the states that have enacted National Popular Vote bills and you’ll see they were all carried by Obama in 2008. This is not because the organization backing the idea is Democratic. Far from it: the deep pocket of National Popular Vote is populist conservative Tom Golisano, billionaire founder of a payroll-processing company. Golisano thinks politics is corrupt, and that unfiltered popular sentiment is the solution.

If the 2012 election were held today, a popular-vote regime would favor Obama, since two of the three largest states are Democratic. But party affiliations swing in cycles: just a generation ago, California was a Republican stronghold. Think about 2004 – in that election, a national popular vote standard would strongly have favored George W. Bush.

In the current presidential system, many votes don’t matter, and the leading candidate may not win. In a National Popular Vote system, every vote counts and political insiders cannot manipulate outcomes. What’s not to like?

Photo: Ballots from the Electoral College are carried into the House Chamber for a joint session of congress to count the ballots on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 8, 2009. Barack Obama was confirmed as president-elect and Joseph Biden was confirmed as vice president-elect. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts.


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I don’t agree, Electoral College is still the best way to go, every state needs to be represented fairly!

Posted by stretch716 | Report as abusive

How about every person being represented fairly? – a non-democrat vote in NYS goes no where – because of the electoral college

Posted by eamartens | Report as abusive

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

One person, one vote. How wouldn’t it be fair?

The National Popular Vote bill is a state-based approach. It preserves the Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded in the Electoral College. It assures that every vote is equal and that every voter will matter in every state in every presidential election, as in virtually every other election in the country.

Under National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would be included in the national count. The candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states would get the 270+ electoral votes from the enacting states. That majority of electoral votes guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states wins the presidency.

National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state. Now their votes are counted only for the candidate they did not vote for. Now they don’t matter to their candidate. With National Popular Vote, elections wouldn’t be about winning states. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. Every vote, everywhere would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in the current handful of swing states. The political reality would be that when every vote is equal, the campaign must be run in every part of the country.

In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives already agree that, only 7-14 states and their voters will matter under the current winner-take-all laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states. Candidates will not care about at least 72% of the voters– voters in 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and in 16 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. 2012 campaigning would be even more obscenely exclusive than 2008 and 2004. In 2008, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of the events were in just 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. More than 85 million voters have been just spectators to the general election.

Now, policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing, too.

Posted by oldgulph | Report as abusive

My opinion falls somewhere in the middle of this discussion. On the one hand, the world has undoubtedly changed incredibly in the last 225 years, in ways the Framers could never have imagined, and as a result the Electoral College as currently realized (indeed, the entire modern process of campaigning at just about every level) frequently produces fairly incomprehensible real-world results. On the other hand, I agree with the previous commenter that some mechanism still seems warranted to insure “fair” representation of the several states (since after all, the U.S.A. remains collection of federated States rather than a single homogenous population).

Here’s my question: Maybe I’m being incredibly simplistic, but would it be practicable to change the Electoral College from a “number of votes relative to the State’s population” scheme to a plain “two votes per State” structure? Seems to me that would maintain the inherent “equality” of the States (maybe enhance it, since each state would have the exact same number of Electors as any other), those wishing to apportion their Electoral votes according to the popular vote could do so (one for each candidate, say, in cases where no clear plurality exists), and those wishing both votes to go to the popular vote “winner” could do that too.

Posted by KHaslbauer | Report as abusive

Rather than move completely away from the Electoral College, I’d much rather it be changed so that each congressional district has it’s own vote, plus two for the state-wide winner (as Nebraska and Maine already do). This would maintain some of the small state/big state balance Congress and the Electoral College is founded on, but would eliminate some of the ridiculous swings seen with winner-take-all states.

Posted by bubba0077 | Report as abusive

I am in favor of direct democracy. Crony deals and backroom tactics is not the will of the people. Every vote should count. The electoral college distorts real democracy.

Posted by aligatorhardt | Report as abusive

Great article, and great idea… How do we implement this as soon as possible…. I’ll help….

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

The Electoral College is the set of electors who vote for presidential candidates. Under the current presidential election system, 48 states award all of their electors to the winners of their state.

There is nothing in the Constitution that requires states to allow their citizens to vote for president, much less award all their electoral votes based upon the vote of their citizens.

The presidential election system we have today is not in the Constitution. State-by-state winner-take-all laws to award Electoral College votes, are an example of state laws eventually enacted by states, using their exclusive power to do so, AFTER the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, Now our current system can be changed by state laws again.

Unable to agree on any particular method, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method for selecting presidential electors exclusively to the states by adopting the language contained in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution– “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 current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state) is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. It is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the debates of the Constitutional Convention, or the Federalist Papers. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all method.

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

Posted by oldgulph | Report as abusive

At the root of it, the Electoral College is essentially why America has turned into this pathetic place.

Had Al Gore made it to the White House, America and the world would be a much better place.

Posted by civictyper | Report as abusive

Explain why a STATE’s Popular Vote should be overturned, thrown out and REVERSED to agree with a NATIONAL Popular Vote.

The President is elected in a FEDERAL elction, NOT in a NATIONAL election. If you want to change the rules, AMEND the Constitution.

No where in the U.S. Constitution does it even say there should be ANY popular vote for the Office of President! How many individuals voted for a presidential candidate is only an amusing anecdote!

The STATES elect the President in our American Federation, not the People. We are the United STATES of America/ We are not the United People of America nor are we the United STATE of America!

The STATES properly elected George Bush in 2000 and not Al Gore. That was a long time ago already! Get over it!

The NPV opens massive cans of worms and must not ever be implemented.

Posted by MrSpartan | Report as abusive

The reasoning for putting mechanisms between the presidential election and the popular vote is clear .. to insure that small states have a voice. It essentially mirrors the legislature.

I have yet to hear a compelling reason to make the change.
That two close elections went opposite of the popular vote is insufficient. As you noted, it doesn’t favor a particular party.

I think we have bigger governance issues to worry about, such as the exploding regulatory state and the assaults against liberty coming at all levels of government.

Posted by tomjedrz | Report as abusive

The Electoral College is very important and better for democracy in a number of ways. The most important way is that it gives people in less populated areas more equitable control of the country. For example, farmers. There are not that many farmers – they inhabit areas that have very low populations; so in a popular vote system, candidates could ignore them. But, because they provide our food (and a lot of exports) they are very important to the country. So they should be represented in government as a very important contingency – namely the electoral votes of states in middle America with low populations. There are lots of other reasons why the Electoral College is a good idea, but that’s the main one.

Posted by Sensibility | Report as abusive

Now political clout comes from being a battleground state.

Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are almost invariably non-competitive, and ignored, in presidential elections. Six regularly vote Republican (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota), and six regularly vote Democratic (Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and DC) in presidential elections.

Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republican voters, Democratic voters, and independent voters, as well as every demographic group. Support in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska — 70%, DC — 76%, Delaware –75%, Idaho – 77%, Maine — 77%, Montana – 72%, Nebraska — 74%, New Hampshire –69%, Nevada — 72%, New Mexico — 76%, Oklahoma – 81%, Rhode Island — 74%, South Dakota – 71%, Utah – 70%, Vermont — 75%, and West Virginia – 81%, and Wyoming – 69%.

Nine state legislative chambers in the lowest population states have passed the National Popular Vote bill. It has been enacted by the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Vermont.

None of the 10 most rural states (VT, ME, WV, MS, SD, AR, MT, ND, AL, and KY) is a battleground state.
The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes does not enhance the influence of rural states, because the most rural states are not battleground states.

Posted by oldgulph | Report as abusive

All I can say is “Wow!” I never though I’d see the day that the electoral college was gone. Now I have new hope.

Gregg Easterbrook you are fast becoming one of the most important commentators on the internet.

Thank you.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

The National Popular Vote would make my vote LESS important. Why would I want that? In a national election, my vote is one-in-150 million. In a state-based election, my vote in Maryland, and yours too Mr. Easterbrook, is one-in-3 million. (I’m guessing on the actual #s.) My vote has a greater chance of deciding the election under the current system. If we go to NPV, election apathy (already a problem in the U.S.) will evenutally increase as people realize this fact.

Personally, I like bubba007’s suggestion above — mirror the Congress. Give electoral votes on a district basis, but with two for the statewide winner. That would actually increase an individual voter’s power even more, while still giving the states their due importance.

Posted by nadie | Report as abusive

Your first sentence destroys all credibility for the rest of the article. Right or wrong, the Electoral College did what it was supposed to do. Thus, it did NOT “put the wrong person in the White House”.

Posted by bbeard | Report as abusive

Dividing a state’s electoral votes by congressional district would magnify the worst features of the Electoral College system.

If the district approach were used nationally, it would be less fair and less accurately reflect the will of the people than the current system. In 2004, Bush won 50.7% of the popular vote, but 59% of the districts. Although Bush lost the national popular vote in 2000, he won 55% of the country’s congressional districts.

The district approach would not provide incentive for presidential candidates to campaign in a particular state or focus the candidates’ attention to issues of concern to the state. Under the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all laws(whether applied to either districts or states), candidates have no reason to campaign in districts or states where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind. In North Carolina, for example, there are only 2 districts (the 13th with a 5% spread and the 2nd with an 8% spread) where the presidential race is competitive. In California, the presidential race is competitive in only 3 of the state’s 53 districts. Nationwide, there are only 55 “battleground” districts that are competitive in presidential elections. Under the present deplorable 48 state-level winner-take-all system, two-thirds of the states (including California and Texas) are ignored in presidential elections; however, seven-eighths of the nation’s congressional districts would be ignored if a district-level winner-take-all system were used nationally.

Because there are generally more close votes on district levels than states as whole, district elections increase the opportunity for error. The larger the voting base, the less opportunity there is for an especially close vote.

Also, a second-place candidate could still win the White House without winning the national popular vote.

A national popular vote is the way to make every person’s vote equal and guarantee that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states becomes President.

Posted by oldgulph | Report as abusive

In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. Support is strong among Republican voters, Democratic voters, and independent voters, as well as every demographic group surveyed in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado– 68%, Florida – 78%, Iowa –75%, Michigan– 73%, Missouri– 70%, New Hampshire– 69%, Nevada– 72%, New Mexico– 76%, North Carolina– 74%, Ohio– 70%, Pennsylvania — 78%, Virginia — 74%, and Wisconsin — 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska — 70%, DC — 76%, Delaware –75%, Idaho – 77%, Maine — 77%, Montana – 72%, Nebraska — 74%, New Hampshire –69%, Nevada — 72%, New Mexico — 76%, Oklahoma – 81%, Rhode Island — 74%, South Dakota – 71%, Utah – 70%, Vermont — 75%, and West Virginia – 81%, and Wyoming – 69%; in Southern and border states: Arkansas –80%, Kentucky — 80%, Mississippi –77%, Missouri — 70%, North Carolina — 74%, Oklahoma – 81%, South Carolina – 71%, Tennessee — 83%, Virginia — 74%, and West Virginia – 81%; and in other states polled: California — 70%, Connecticut — 74%,, Massachusetts — 73%, Minnesota — 75%, New York — 79%, Oregon – 76%, and Washington — 77%.

Come the end of voting on Election Day, most voters don’t care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state . . . they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was directly and equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans consider the idea of the candidate with the most popular votes being declared a loser detestable. We don’t allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

Posted by oldgulph | Report as abusive

Anybody who thinks National Popular Vote (NPV) has even the most microscopic chance of being adopted by states with 270 electoral votes in time for the 2012 election is absolutely dreaming. Tell your friends you heard it here. Now that this NPV idiocy has been around for a few years, its borders are fairly clear: States who have bought into NPV concept tend to be very Blue, i.e. reliably liberal. If you add up all the “Hard Blue” states (now remember folks, the times they are a changin’), you will fall far short of 270 electoral votes. So sit back and relax NPV worriers, or worry about something else like jobs, taxes, or the economy rather than NPV. To quote the Clint Eastwood line “THAT’S NOT GONNA HAPPEN”

Posted by infoguy | Report as abusive

The U.S. Constitution was adopted by, as its introduction stated, “We the People” (except of course enslaved persons), and it replaced the Articles of Confederation. However, under it States did have retained internal powers, which the Supreme Court majority that was appointed by Bush Sr. and Reagan ignored along with their precedents about not interfering in state election matters. They thereby brought about what was effectively a coup d’etat, putting Bush, Jr. in the President’s office and handing him control over a government that was running a budget surplus. The beneficiary of that coup then violated the UN Charter, a solemn treaty obligation of the USA, by a military aggression that the Catholic Pope declared to be an unjust war, which not only resulted in the deaths of thousands of American boys and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, it bankrupted America’s government, unlawfully enriched Cheney’s former company by violating public contract laws, and debased the currency to the point that millions of ordinary Americans are now in devastated circumstances. Yeah, commentator at 12:08 am we’ll get over it, after Bush, Jr. and Cheney and the surviving members of the Supreme Court gang of five have been prosecuted and sentenced to stiff prison terms.

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