The Electoral College: A new approach to reform

By Rob Richie and Ryan O'Donnell
Published February 23rd 2006 in /

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 no more accurate for choosing a winner in close contests than a coin flip. No argument in its defense holds up to scrutiny.

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 more than 80% of House Members voted for direct election and backers included the NAACP, AFL-CIO, Chamber of Commerce, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

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

Fortunately, an innovative new effort is about to turn this conventional wisdom on its head. In the coming year, expect a sharp rise in debate about reforming presidential elections - and change to start in a state near you.

National Popular Vote, an informal coalition campaign boosted by FairVote and former Members of Congress from across the spectrum, on February 23rd announced a novel strategy to change the system. The plan doesn't call for abolishing the Electoral College. On the contrary, it recognizes the fact that the Constitution already grants states the power to make the Electoral College work for all Americans.

States have exclusive power over how to choose their electors. In fact, Maine and Nebraska currently allocate electoral votes to the candidate who wins each congressional district. In the 19th century, many legislatures simply appointed electors without holding elections - and in 2000, the Supreme Court pointed out that Florida had the power to do just that.

Today most states allocate electoral votes to the statewide vote winner, but they could just as easily allocate their electoral votes to the nationwide vote winner. Of course, 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 receive an Electoral College victory every time. Every vote would count equally wherever it is cast.

To ensure the agreement stayed in place through an election, states would enter into a binding agreement called an interstate compacts. 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 such agreements, including Port Authority, which joins together New York and New Jersey in control of waterways.

Under the National Popular Vote plan, states would join the agreement one by one. But it would become active only when the agreement became decisive in electing the president -- that is, when states representing a majority of electoral votes joined it. Legislation to enter into the agreement already 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 just how urgent it is to establish a national popular vote. The state-based nature of the system ensures an unequal vote for everyone in the country, locks up naturally "purple" states into "red" and "blue," and shuts out most of the country from meaningful participation. We have nothing less than a two-tiered system-a declining number of Americans that matter and a majority that is taken for granted.

Casualities include equal voter participation and racial fairness. In 2004, voter turnout was 8% higher in battleground states than non-battlegrounds and fully 17% among young adults. Expect this division only to grow in future elections as all the resources geared toward affecting presidential campaigns go only into battlegrounds.

These battlegrounds also are disproportionately white. A white person is more than twice as likely to live in a battleground state as an Asian American. The percentage of African Americans in a "swing vote" position (in a state where African Americans are at least 5% of the population and where the presidential division between the parties is within 5%) has plunged from 73% in 1976 to just 17% in 2004.

Furthermore, a state's status as a battleground or spectator is becoming increasingly entrenched. The overall number of truly competitive states is declining. That means fewer and fewer voters will be able to cast a meaningful ballot, have their concerns listened to, and participate in the process.

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.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan electoral reform group in Washington, DC, which just release its report "Presidential Elections Inequality - The Electoral College in the 21st Century"

Authors Bio: Ryan O'Donnell is Communications Director for FairVote - The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan election reform group in Washington DC.


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