Electoral Vote Reform: Is It an Idea Whose Time Has Come?

By Louis Jacobson
Published May 10th 2006 in Roll Call

It isn't often that an electoral-mechanics issue gets wide public attention, but a recent proposal to shift the nation's complicated but well-entrenched Electoral College system to a national popular vote apparently has.

The idea, offered by a bipartisan group called National Popular Vote, would enlist states to join a compact under which member states assign their electoral votes to the winner of the national vote, not to the winner of their statewide vote. The compact would come into force only once states representing a majority of the Electoral College had joined it. This way, the U.S. Constitution doesn't have to be amended, which sidesteps a hurdle that stalled prior efforts.

Though National Popular Vote is still a long way away from turning its proposal into reality, the group -buoyed by years of public opinion polls suggesting public dissatisfaction with the current system- has made notable strides in a short period of time.

In the weeks since the idea's Feb. 23 unveiling, bills have been introduced in five states (California, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana and Missouri), most of them with bipartisan support. Several of those states have held or scheduled hearings on the matter. Colorado's Senate already has passed the measure. In California, the proposal has been passed out of committee. The goal for 2006 "is to line up sponsors and get them to announce publicly that they support it," said John Koza, the co-inventor of the scratch-off lottery card and a consulting professor in electrical engineering at Stanford University. Koza co-wrote the book "Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote," which is the basis for the proposal. Given that most state legislatures have short sessions during even-numbered years, Koza said, "this is mainly a 2007 legislative campaign."

The idea has become something of a media darling. A New York Times editorial, comparing the idea to the struggle that enabled blacks and women to vote, said the national popular vote would be in the "worthy tradition of making American democracy more democratic." Other endorsements have appeared in The New Yorker, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Denver Post and the Chicago SunTimes. The idea also has attracted interest within the blogosphere.

It's hard to ignore the sponsors' strong case about the weaknesses of the system.

In an April presentation at the National Conference of State Legislatures' Washington, D.C., meeting, Rob Richie - an ally of NPV who serves as executive director of the election-reform group FairVote - noted that the number of swing states dipped to 13, 16 and 13 during the past three presidential elections, compared to the low 20s, which was typical between 1960 and 1992. Moreover, the number of electoral votes at stake in these swing states has plunged � from the 200s before 2000 to 167 in 2000 and 159 in 2004.

This reality has led presidential campaigns to ignore an increasing proportion of voters who live in states deemed too firmly red or blue to bother spending time or resources in. Richie's group found that in 2004, the presidential campaigns directed 27 percent of their advertising expenditures to Florida, 18 percent to Ohio, 12 percent to Pennsylvania and 8 percent each to Wisconsin and Iowa. The other 45 states and Washington, D.C., had to settle for sharing the other 26 percent.

To supporters of a national popular vote, this pattern not only dampens turnout in non-battleground states but also reverberates for years to come, as youngsters in the forgotten states become alienated from the political process. By instituting a national popular vote, they argue, every American voter's ballot would be weighted equally, and once campaigns are forced to reach out to voters no matter where they live, many more Americans would be energized. This column will not throw its weight behind either a national popular vote or the Electoral College. What we're more interested in is the prospect of it being enacted. And beyond simple inertia, the idea faces a rough road. Here's why:

The Purple State Problem. Battleground states like the status quo because they benefit from it. Yes, battleground status tends to shift over time; prior to Bill Clinton's first bid for president, California was considered in play. Still, it's hard to ask legislators to change electoral mechanisms on the chance that their state may, some day many years hence, slip into the solidly red or solidly blue column. So, chalk up as many as 159 electoral "no" votes in this category.

The Tradition Problem. Some states, particularly in the South, are simply loath to upset tradition. By themselves, Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia and Mississippi would add another potential 53 electoral votes against.

The Ornery Problem. Some states, particularly in the Mountain West, are fiercely independent and would likely be skeptical of any "national" change of this sort. Add another 15 votes against.

The Small State Problem. Small states benefit modestly from the Electoral College and are usually reluctant to give it up. Outside of the Northeast, where many states will be more open to reforms such as this, the states not already accounted for in other categories include the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska. That's as many as 17 additional "no" votes.

The Liberal Problem. National Popular Vote and FairVote take great pains to insist that their plan is not ideologically tilted. Indeed, NPV's advisory committee features more Republicans than it does Democrats, including former GOP Reps. John Anderson (Ill.), Tom Campbell (Calif.) and John Buchanan (Ala.) and former GOP Sens. David Durenberger (Minn.) and Jake Garn (Utah). "We're not talking about Bush-Gore," Richie emphasized at the NCSL gathering. "The more we get away from that, the more we can talk about this proposal."

That may be true � but our state-based experts say that convincing red America skeptics that this isn't a liberal plot won't be easy. Of the remaining states, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas might be susceptible to the argument that the proposal disproportionately benefits big, and thus Democratic-leaning, states. (Texas, of course, could actually benefit from its size, but that's no guarantee of support.) These could total another 71 electoral votes.

All told, these "problem" states add up to 315 electoral votes � more than enough to block the compact.

"It is a nonstarter for a lot of legislators," Tim Storey, a political specialist at the NCSL. "We're talking about tilting at windmills." But what if the "problems" listed above do not prove to be a serious obstacle after all? What about this question: Would this proposal alienate legsislators' own voters?

Say you're a Wyoming legislator and you've voted to have your state join the compact. Then Wyoming, as expected, backs the Republican candidate overwhelmingly, but in a very close election, the Democrat wins the national popular vote. Under a compact system, Wyoming's three electoral votes will effectively determine the winner. (The compact includes a six-month blackout period prior to the election during which states may not withdraw, so quitting isn't an option.)

Could Wyoming's electors, feeling the pressure from irate voters, waver on their pledge to support the popular-vote winner? Like the current system, the national popular vote idea does not simply award the state's electoral votes to the winner; it keeps the system of human electors. Granted, the theoretical Wyoming electors in question will be pledged to support the Democrat, and presumably will be vetted by the state Democratic Party for loyalty. But it's possible that home-state pressure could push some electors to hedge on installing a president who has microscopic support in their state.

Far-fetched? Maybe not. When asked about this scenario, the former chairwoman of the Wyoming Democratic Party, Linda Stoval, said that while she likes the idea of the popular vote determining the presidency, she acknowledged that "the electors for the national winner's party might be privately and publicly pressured by the opposition party to not cast their votes accordingly. How would we protect them?"

The idea's supporters say they are not worried. They note that "faithless electors" � those who disregard their party's candidate � are historically rare and are just as much of a problem under the current system. "Electors are not the type of people who care about that kind of pressure," Koza said. "They're party activists." And he noted that 20-odd states have laws that govern how electors cast their vote, some of them with stiff means of enforcement.

Perhaps more importantly, the idea's backers maintain that public opinion surveys consistently have shown that wide majorities of Americans distrust the Electoral College and are positively disposed to a national popular vote. Their own survey, taken last September, found that in the four states sampled� Arkansas, Maine, Missouri and Michigan � support ran from 66 percent to 73 percent.

"If the Legislature says this is how we'll do the election, then that's the law in Wyoming," Koza said. "If 70 percent of the people want to use the popular vote, and the Legislature voted it in, I don't see any heat coming from that."

In any case, Richie noted in an interview, the people of Wyoming only stand to benefit from the national popular vote, since their state is utterly ignored in the presidential race under the current system. The same is true of other solidly red states, he added � and solidly blue states.

Indeed, the "first-blush reaction when Richie spoke to legislators recently in deep-blue Rhode Island was that they would get "real attention in a national popular vote. They figured that a visit to Providence would generate news coverage that would reach the whole state of 1 million people."

Ultimately, the debate over the national popular vote may hinge on whether Americans want to give up a little state sovereignty on behalf of national imperatives. It's happened before, but for a nation deeply split along red-blue lines, it's hardly a slam-dunk.