By Rob Richie and Ryan O’Donnell
Any poll will tell you that the vast majority of Americans favor electing the president by a national popular vote over our dysfunctional Electoral College system. This should be no surprise. The current system makes most Americans irrelevant in electing their most powerful elected office.
They may not have to wait much longer.
With the endorsement of former members of Congress across the political spectrum, and from groups like FairVote, Asian American Action Fund, National Black Caucus of State Legislators and Common Cause, the National Popular Vote coalition is pursuing a state-based solution. The National Popular Vote plan for president does not abolish the Electoral College. Instead, it recognizes that the Constitution grants states the power to make the Electoral College work for all Americans.
Just as Dorothy all along had the power return home from Oz with a few clicks of her heels, the American people have the power through their state government to establish presidential elections founded on the principles of majority rule and one person, one vote.
Under the Constitution, states have exclusive power—indeed have responsibility—to award their electors to reflect the interests of their people. Maine and Nebraska have chosen to award electoral votes based on who wins each of its congressional districts. In the 19th century, many legislatures simply appointed electors without elections.
Today most states give their electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote, but they could just as easily award them to the national vote winner in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. If a group of states representing a majority of the Electoral College entered into a binding agreement to do so, then the nationwide popular vote winner would achieve an Electoral College victory every time.
States in fact regularly enter into such interstate compacts as a protected constitutional right; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Colorado River Water Treaty are two such examples. The National Popular Vote compact will go into effect only if in July of a presidential election year the number of participating states collectively have a majority of at least 270 electoral votes. At that point, the compact is triggered, with states accepting a blackout period during which they cannot withdraw from the agreement until the new president takes office. That new president is guaranteed to be the candidate who won the most votes from Americans in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The National Popular Vote has had remarkable success since going public in February 2006. California’s Assembly and Senate in California passed the plan in 2006, as did the Colorado Senate, Hawaii Senate and Arkansas House this year. Nationally nearly 300 state legislators representing nearly every state have sponsored the plan or pledged to do so.
While it’s unlikely that enough states will be on board by next July to affect the 2008 election, we think it will be the last state-by-state election for president in our history. It couldn’t come any sooner. In today’s climate of partisan polarization, the current system shuts out most of the country from meaningful participation by turning naturally “purple” states into simple “red” and “blue.”
The result is a declining number of Americans who matter and a majority who don’t. Youth turnout was fully 17 percent higher in presidential battlegrounds than the rest of the nation in 2004—double the disparity just four years before. 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 fewer than 60,000 votes in Ohio would have trumped his national margin of three and a half million votes—but what’s so new and disturbing 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. We’re well on our way toward that goal with the Free State Initiative—escaping the shackles of a bankrupt Electoral College system.
Robert Richie has been Executive Director of FairVote—The Center for Voting and Democracy since its founding in 1992. He is an expert on international and domestic electoral systems.
Ryan O’Donnell is Director of the Presidential Elections Reform Program. Ryan was the lead organizer for the National Popular Vote bill in the Maryland Assembly. Maryland became the first state in the country to sign on to the plan to change the way we elect the president in April 2007.