Time to shift to popular vote

By Rob Richie and Bill Shein
Published June 15th 2006 in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Unlike every other election in the United States, the popular-vote winner in presidential elections is not guaranteed victory.

Al Gore got more votes than George Bush in 2000, while Bush narrowly escaped defeat in 2004 when a shift of fewer than 60,000 votes in Ohio would have trumped his national margin of 3.5 million votes.

The U.S. is the only major democracy to allow a presidential candidate to win with fewer votes than an opponent. Given what the Electoral College does to undermine our founding principle that all of us are created equal, it is time to bring our presidential elections in line with the norm for electing every other American office of consequence.

Defenders of the status quo often lead with three arguments. They allege that the Electoral College benefits small states, that it forces presidential candidates to seek votes across the country and that the Founding Fathers designed it as it operates today. None of these claims is even remotely accurate.

First, in today's presidential contests, nearly all small states are ignored. In 2004, of the 13 smallest-population states, only New Hampshire was in play. And because small states swing far fewer electoral votes than big states, competitive big states like Florida and Ohio get far more attention than competitive small states.

In fact, a majority of small states did not have a single presidential candidate visit or a single presidential campaign ad air during 2004's peak campaign season, while Florida experienced more than 61 major-party candidate visits and more than 55,000 campaign ads.

Second, candidates focus exclusively on a shrinking number of "battleground" states. A top Bush campaign adviser admitted the campaign didn't poll a single person outside of 18 battlegrounds in the last 2 1/2 years of the 2004 campaign. By the final six weeks, the major campaigns focused primarily on just five states.

Third, our founders did not expect the Electoral College to operate as it does today. While nearly all states now allocate their electoral votes to the winner of that state's popular vote, that rule was far from the norm during the lifetimes of the founders. States eventually adopted the winner-take-all rule to maximize the boost it gave to their majority party - yet the framers didn't plan for the rise of political parties.

The fact is we live in a different world. Now, all states provide nearly universal suffrage, and all Americans can learn about candidates through the media and the Internet. Certainly, one of the important original purposes of the Electoral College - to protect the interests of low-turnout slave states to ensure they ratified the Constitution - is no longer relevant.

Most Americans know there is a better way. Since the 1940s, Gallup polls have shown that large majorities favor a national popular vote, with support as high as 81%. That's why a new and innovative effort is under way to create the presidential election system that Americans prefer - and the one that our nation deserves.

The National Popular Vote idea is simple: One by one, states join an "interstate compact" and agree to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. Nothing would change until states that together possess a majority of electoral votes sign on, guaranteeing that the popular-vote winner will become president.

Backed by former members of Congress and a growing bipartisan coalition, the National Popular Vote bill recently passed the Colorado Senate and the California Assembly. Bills have been introduced in Louisiana, Illinois, Missouri and New York; bills are expected in all states by 2007.

With a national popular vote, presidential campaigns would seek votes everywhere in a true 50-state effort. Every vote - in every part of every state - would be equal. Americans could get involved in presidential campaigns in their own cities, suburbs and towns.

Other reform options won't work. Allocating electoral votes by congressional district is a non-starter because it tilts the playing field - the Republican vote is more evenly dispersed across the nation. Proportional allocation of electoral votes creates arguably even worse problems - campaigns will continue to skip most states, based on the murky math of where campaigning might swing a single electoral vote.

Should we worry about recounts? Certainly, we should improve how we cast and count votes. Nothing should stop America from running the best elections in the world. But there is a far greater likelihood of shenanigans and messy recounts when 51 separate contests determine the presidency. Currently, in a close election, a shift of a few thousand votes in one state can decide the winner.

The bottom line is that candidates for our one national office should have incentives to speak to everyone, and all Americans should have the power to hold their president accountable. Only a national popular vote will do.

Now, with the National Popular Vote campaign, we have a sensible road map for change.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote, a non-profit, non-partisan electoral reform group in Washington, D.C. Bill Shein is director of FairVote's Presidential Elections Reform Program.