The Electoral College: A new approach to an increasingly serious problem

By Rob Richie and Ryan O'Donnell
Published February 28th 2006 in Sacramento Bee
Polls consistently show that a large majority of Americans favor electing the president through a national popular vote over our dysfunctional Electoral College. The current system makes most Americans irrelevant in presidential elections and is little better than a coin flip in deciding close contests.

Indeed, Congress has considered more amendments to reform the Electoral College than any other subject. One house has given the necessary two-thirds majority for change several times, including in 1969 when backers included the AFL-CIO, Chamber of Commerce, Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon.

Today the Electoral College causes more harm to the principles of equality, accountability and majority rule than ever before, yet civic and political leaders almost never talk about it. They've given up, contributing to a shockingly limited debate about what the current system does to American democracy in the 21st century.

Now an innovative new effort is about to turn conventional wisdom on its head. National Popular Vote, backed by FairVote and former Members of Congress from across the political spectrum, has unveiled a new approach to change the system. The plan does not call for abolishing the Electoral College. On the contrary, it recognizes that the Constitution already grants states the power to make the Electoral College work for all Americans.

States already have exclusive power over how to choose their electors. Maine and Nebraska currently allocate electoral votes to the candidate who wins each congressional district, for example, while in the 19th century, many legislatures simply appointed electors without holding elections.

Today most states allocate electoral votes to the statewide vote winner, but they could just as easily allocate them to the national vote winner. One state on its own is unlikely to make this choice, but if a group of states representing a majority of Americans and a majority of the Electoral College did so, then the nationwide popular vote winner would achieve an Electoral College victory every time.

To ensure the agreement stays in place through an election, the National Popular Vote plan suggests states enter into a binding agreement called an interstate compact. Recently, one such compact made the news when several northeastern states joined together to limit their carbon emissions to combat global warming. There are hundreds of similar agreements, including the Port Authority, which joins together New York and New Jersey in control of waterways.

States would join the agreement one by one. It would become active only when it became decisive in electing the president -- that is, when joined by states representing a majority of Americans and electoral votes. Legislation to enter into the agreement has been introduced with the support of Democrats, Republicans and independents in the Illinois state senate, and more bills will follow -- eventually in all 50 states.

FairVote's new report, Presidential Election Inequality, shows the urgency in moving toward a national popular vote. In today's climate of partisan polarization, the current state-based Electoral College system shuts out most of the country from meaningful participation by turning naturally "purple" states into simple "red" and "blue." The result is a two-tiered system, with a declining number of Americans that matter and a majority that don't. Youth turnout was 17 percent higher in presidential battlegrounds than the rest of the nation in 2004. The presidential campaigns and their allies spent more money on ads in Florida in the final month of the campaign than their combined spending in 46 other states.

These violations of political equality make the case for reform particularly pressing. Popular vote reversals are certainly a problem -- Al Gore won more votes than George Bush in 2000, and Bush narrowly escaped a 2004 defeat when a shift of less than 60,000 votes in Ohio would have trumped his national margin of three and a half million votes -- but what's new is the shrinking presidential battleground.

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 we have a roadmap for change.

About the writers:

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan electoral reform group in Washington, D.C., which has released a news report "Presidential Elections Inequality -- The Electoral College in the 21st Century" Ryan O'Donnell is FairVote's communications director. Readers may write to the authors at The Center for Voting and Democracy, 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 610, Takoma Park, MD 20912; Web site: Distibuted by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.


Get Ryan O'Donnell Articles

Sign up to get new commentaries in your mailbox.