It’s time to get rid of the creaky, cranky, constitutional contraption that is the Electoral College and start electing our presidents by national popular vote. That can be done without even amending the Constitution, through an interstate compact under which states award their Electoral College votes to whoever wins the national vote.
When the founders devised the Electoral College, direct elections were an experiment they viewed charily. Only members of the House of Representatives were to be directly chosen, and then by an electorate effectively limited to white property-owning males 21 or older. Senators, seen as links between state and federal governments, were to be selected by state legislators.
As for the president, there too, the process would be indirect. Voters would choose electors who then would cast a state’s electoral votes for president, a safety filter designed to promote men “pre-eminent for ability and virtue” and to “afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder.”
There was also an iniquitous impulse at play. The South wanted a system that would grant states presidential voting power that reflected their considerable populations of slaves, or “other persons,” as they were euphemistically referred to in the infamous three-fifths compromise for apportioning seats in the House. The Electoral College was, then, hardly a work of daring genius, but a rather cautious, clunky compromise influenced by slavery.
And clunky it has been. Five times in 58 presidential elections the candidate who won the popular vote hasn’t been the one who went on to the White House. The fact that we’ve seen that corrosive result twice in the last five presidential elections is deeply troubling for democracy.
Let’s anticipate the usual counterargument: If those presidential elections had been conducted on a national majority vote basis, George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump would have campaigned very differently — and might well have won the popular vote.
Possibly — and if so, all well and good. Both men would have then had a much more legitimate claim on the office.
The other arguments in favor of the current system are, to put it charitably, labored. Silliest is that but for the Electoral College, small states would see their interests ignored. Hardly, as far as policy-making goes, given that every state, regardless of population, has two senators to look after those concerns.
When it comes to campaigns, that warned-of consequence actually describes reality for most of the country. Because of the Electoral College, presidential candidates narrow their focus and visits to a dozen or so swing states. Competitive Pennsylvania and Florida see revolving-door visits, while indigo California and scarlet Texas go virtually ignored. In an election based on the national tally, the value of a vote wouldn’t depend on the state in which it was cast. Thus a Republican nominee might do a swing through southern New England and New York, while a Democratic standard-bearer might visit the Plains states and the Deep South.
Another oft-heard worry: That by winning a few big states — say, California, New York, and Illinois — Democrats could impose a president on an otherwise unwilling country. Not even close. In 2016, those three states cast about 25,850,000 major-party votes, about 16,400,000 for Clinton and approximately 9,449,000 for Trump. Nationally, almost 129 million people voted for the two major-party candidates.
Divorce yourself for a moment from the current political reality and contemplate this question: If one were designing an election system today, would it be the Electoral College?
Of course not. So why not change it?
The National Popular Vote proposal gives us a way to do that. The compact would take effect when states whose combined Electoral Vote total is at least 270 — the threshold required to elect a president — adopt it. (And provided it survived an almost inevitable court challenge.) So far, 15 states and the District of Columbia, with 196 electoral votes, have done so.
In some non-joining states — Arizona, Michigan, and Ohio prominent among them — activists could use the initiative process to put the proposal on the ballot, though sometimes with a first stop at the legislature.
It’s an idea whose time has arrived.