By Stephen Tuttle | Oct. 6, 2018
There is now a movement afoot, loosely called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. It's a beauty.
Legislatures in eleven states — Connecticut, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont — plus Washington, D.C., have decided this would be a swell idea.
And here is the idea: These states would agree to pledge their electoral votes in a presidential election to the winner of the national popular vote. Not who won their state; but who won nationally. They claim this would make every vote count more and put smaller states more in play. It would not.
It's neither coincidence nor surprise the states now advocating for this all supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. The memory of Al Gore's loss in 2000 lingers, and apparently Clinton's is still fresh.
If you're a Democrat, this makes perfect sense. Your presidential candidate would start every election with a guaranteed multi-million vote cushion from just California and New York. Clinton won the national popular race by about 2.9 million votes. She won California by 4.3 million, and New York by 1.9 million. If you're a Republican, you can begin to see the problem.
That's why it's especially surprising that legislators in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Michigan have offered similar legislation. (Michigan's Republican Speaker of the House said the bill likely won't even be assigned to a committee and will never be heard.) Those three red states represent 34 electoral votes.
Let's play out this scenario because it involves the little states. Assume those in the compact, plus the three wannabes, had agreed to give their electoral votes to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Donald Trump would still have won but barely, with 272 electoral votes — just above the minimum 270 needed to win. In that scenario, the little states with just three electoral votes — Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming — suddenly play a huge role. Clinton-flipping just one would have changed the outcome.
The Founders created the Electoral College system specifically to give smaller states a voice in presidential politics. They have few electoral votes — states have the same number of electors as they have members of Congress — but they can still be important. Traditionally, the candidate who wins in a given state receives all of those electoral votes. But it doesn't have to be that way. Both Maine and Nebraska apportion their electoral votes by congressional district.
The Constitution (Article II, Section 1) directs state legislatures to determine how to select their electors but is mute on how they should vote. If a state wants to commit their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, it appears they have the right to do so.
Small states, and possibly some larger toss-up states, would be the losers. Candidates will spend their time mining votes in population centers since winning individual states, especially small states, would no longer matter.
The so-called toss-up states, like Michigan, become less important, too, just by virtue of anticipated thin winning margins. Under the current system, the electoral votes in the swing states are critical, and even the narrowest win is valuable. Under the proposed Compact, winning narrowly in a toss-up state is far less valuable than winning bigger where you are already popular. Mining for a few thousand more votes in Michigan becomes less important.
Republican presidential candidates would be spending a lot of time in Texas and the Southeast. Trump won Texas by about 800,000 votes, and the turnout was a paltry 60 percent; that's a lot of potential votes. Democrats will be in California and New York, madly registering new voters to add to their huge margins.
Then there's that other problem: Your state voted for one candidate, but all your electoral votes went to another candidate anyway. Voters won't like that. At all.
More to the point, the Electoral College system almost always does reflect the popular vote. We've had 58 presidential elections, and only five times has the winner of the popular vote lost the election. John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush, and Trump are the only candidates to have been elected without winning the popular vote.
(John Quincy Adams' 1824 victory was especially interesting. One of his opponents, Andrew Jackson, received more popular votes and more electoral votes but lacked the electoral majority needed. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives, as required by the Constitution, and Adams prevailed.)
If states want the presidency to be decided by a national plebiscite, they should try to amend the Constitution and do away with the Electoral College altogether. The halfway measure some now propose steals electoral power from voters in some states and gives it to those in others. That's just wrong.