There is a lot of anger over the result of the election. In fact, that is probably an understatement. As a result, the same conversation we had following the debacle that was the Election of 2000 has resurfaced. Is the Electoral College the best way to elect our president? There are a lot of Americans who don’t think so and it’s why you’re going to be hearing a lot about the National Popular Vote, if you haven’t already.
The Electoral College
First, some background. The Electoral College is established in the US Constitution and would take an amendment to scrap completely. In essence, it was a compromise.
The U.S. Constitution (Article II, Section 1) gives the states exclusive control over awarding their electoral votes: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors….”
There are good reasons why the Electoral College, despite becoming increasingly despised, makes sense. Slate offers some good arguments, as does the Cato Institute. Remember, the United States of America is a republic, not a pure democracy. It’s an important distinction that more and more Americans are forgetting.
“And to the Republic for Which It Stands”
From 125: A republic and a democracy are identical in every aspect except one. In a republic, the sovereignty is in each individual person. In a democracy the sovereignty is in the group.
Republic: That form of government in which the powers of sovereignty are vested in the people and are exercised by the people, either directly, or through representatives chosen by the people, to whom those powers are specially delegated.
Democracy: That form of government in which the sovereign power resides in and is exercised by the whole body of free citizens directly or indirectly through a system of representation, as distinguished from a monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy.
Essentially, the selection of the president isn’t done via one election. In reality, it’s actually 51 of them (the 50 states plus DC) in one night. The winner of the popular vote in each state is granted electors who typically, although not always (faithless elector), cast their vote for whom the state pledged. Outside of Maine and Nebraska, it is winner take all. In other words, if you win the popular vote in California, even by one vote, you get all 55 electoral votes.
Electoral votes are essentially weighted to ensure smaller population states are not completely ignored in the process. For example, Wyoming has three electoral votes (1 congressman, 2 senators). It is actually a higher level of electoral clout than the half-million population would have in any straight popular vote contest. Some scream that is undemocratic, and they are correct. Remember, however, that we do not live in a pure democracy by design. So enter the National Popular Vote discussion.
Gaming the System: The National Popular Vote
The National Popular Vote interstate compact claims to ensure that “every vote, in every state, will matter in every presidential election.” Approved by statehouse and signed by governors, it would not take effect until enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes, meaning 270 of 538. Under the compact, the winner would be the candidate who received the most popular votes on Election Day, regardless how he or she performed in the state in question. In other words, the national popular vote winner would receive all of the electoral votes of the enacting states when Electoral College meets in mid-December.
The bill is gaining traction. As of this writing, the website informs us that it’s been enacted by 11 jurisdictions possessing 165 electoral votes—61% of the 270 electoral votes necessary to activate it, including four small jurisdictions (RI, VT, HI, DC), three medium- size states (MD, MA, WA), and four big states (NJ, IL, NY, CA). The bill has passed a total of 33 legislative chambers in 22 states—most recently by a bipartisan 40–16 vote in the Arizona House, a 28–18 vote in the Oklahoma Senate, a 57–4 vote in New York Senate, and a 37–21 vote in Oregon House.
Here are the states that have signed on so far:
- District of Columbia – 3 electoral votes
- Hawaii – 4 electoral votes
- Illinois – 20 electoral votes
- Maryland – 10 electoral votes
- Massachusetts – 11 electoral votes
- New Jersey – 14 electoral votes
- Washington – 12 electoral votes
- Vermont – 3 electoral votes
- California – 55 electoral votes
- Rhode Island – 4 electoral votes
- New York – 29 electoral votes
The bill will take effect when enacted by states possessing an additional 105 electoral votes. Do you notice anything about the above list? In every instance, they areas considered blue states in the past few presidential contests.
The National Popular Vote Activates
So, let’s start this by getting the additional electoral votes needed to activate this compact. For the sake of argument, let’s assume states who have considered it in some way, along with some select states that might, agree to the National Popular Vote compact:
- Virginia – 17
- Oregon – 7
- Arizona – 11
- Oklahoma – 7
- Michigan – 16
- Wisconsin – 10
- Minnesota – 10
- Florida – 29
The above additions give the compact what they need, so it is now in effect. Let’s continue with a hypothetical.
Election 2020 – More of the Same
Trump battled hard over three years in his first term, but the number of his detractors never significantly decreases. He has made overtures to minority communities and came through with more economic prosperity for the working class in the rust belt that helped deliver him the 2016 election.
As a result, the campaign against former Independent and newly-minted Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders was another contentious one. Sanders, armed with a populist message and energized base of Millennials, storms into the general election only down by two points. His strength in traditional democratic strongholds like the Northeast and West Coast is unmatched.
The debates were fiery, and October surprises abound. Once again, polls are all over the place and many are within the margin of error. When polls close and election results come pouring in, the media is thrilled to announce a Sanders victory when he narrowly glides past the magic number of 270. Here are the Electoral College results after the all the absentee ballots are counted:
We Won! We Won!
Congratulations, Bernie Sanders! Mmmm… not so fast.
When the final count is complete, the 700,000 vote lead Trump was nursing leading could not be overcome, even with the west coast finally added. Three days later, the media announces that Donald Trump wins the popular vote by a measly 110,000 votes in a popular election squeaker filled with allegations of fraud from both sides and countless irregularities at polling places. It doesn’t matter. Trump is declared the winner of the popular vote.
Uncle Bernie and his supporters are about to get some very bad news. With the latest crop of National Popular Vote states activating the compact, here’s what the new electoral map looks like because Donald Trump had the most ballots cast in his favor:
In the example above, a vote cast for Sanders in places like New York and California would have propelled him to an electoral victory. Since Trump won the popular vote, and those states are National Popular vote signatories, it doesn’t matter. The electors from New York will go against the will of their residents because the rest of the country went in a different direction.
Yes, that’s one of the largest electoral landslides in history. There will be no President Bernie Sanders after all.
Be Careful What You Wish For
Now, I know the above situation is highly unlikely. I’m using to simply prove a point. The Democrats are looking at the National Popular Vote compact as a way to make sure they are not deprived of yet another win (Most recently, Gore in 2000 & Clinton in 2016). They need to remember that it is a two-way street. As my somewhat ridiculous example illustrates to those trying to obtain a specific result, be careful what you wish for.
There are merits to the way the states are going about ensuring that every vote matters by using the National Popular Vote. It is perfectly constitutional and it is fair, but is it right? There are other measures that should be considered, such as appropriating electoral votes in some manner and not make states winner take all. An amendment scrapping the Electoral College altogether should be discussed.
Don’t Email Angry…Or Change Your Elections That Way Either
All Americans have to realize that fundamentally changing the way our votes are counted may not produce a desired outcome. As financial advisors like to say, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” The Electoral College may no longer be the proper way to choose our chief executive, and changing it certainly deserves a conversation. But it cannot be a forced discussion made out of anger or frustration.
The decision to change the way the President of the United States is elected after over two and a quarter centuries must be a thoughtful and not emotional one. Please, my fellow Americans, do not agree to change the system because you are upset at a loss or because you think it will protect your candidate of choice in the future. Do it because you believe the best thing for our nation and accept that the National Popular Vote compact might not save you from more Election Day heartbreak.