Democracy Needs the National Popular Vote

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Protesters hold signs outside the Capitol before Electoral College electors vote following the 2016 presidential election in Olympia, Washington. 

The next Iraqi presidential election should be exciting, because while we know Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saairun party will pick up most of the electoral votes in the Shiite south, the Forward Alliance has a good shot to take the electoral vote-rich Baghdad governorate, and—

Hang on, I’ve been told that’s not how Iraqi elections work. Apparently, Iraq’s American-written constitution doesn’t include an Electoral College system of choosing its president, but a parliamentary proportional representation setup, where the unicameral Parliament then chooses its president (a figurehead) and prime minister. Not only that, but every other country where America directly intervened and rewrote its constitution, from Germany and Japan after World War II to Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion, doesn’t use the Electoral College either.

If America is a shining city on the hill, with its perfect, preserved-in-amber system of government, why is it that we never replicate that government when given the chance following our imperial adventures abroad? Why don’t we export the American dream anywhere else?

No state, for that matter, has succumbed to the virtues of the Electoral College. California doesn’t choose its governor through a series of mini-elections in Los Angeles and San Francisco and Ventura and Placer counties. Ohio doesn’t grant thirty electoral votes to Cuyahoga County and one to Vinton County (the state’s smallest). When given the freedom to choose, every state decided on a majority-vote system for statewide officers facing elections, as did every city. A few cities and states hold different styles of primaries, multi-round elections, and runoffs for the top two vote-getters, but none bear much resemblance to the way we select a president.

I’d prefer America’s leaders didn’t rewrite anyone’s constitution, foreign or domestic. But the fact that we are either embarrassed by the election system under which we currently endure, or think that it doesn’t produce the best outcomes, is newly salient in light of the current debate over the Electoral College, forced into the national conversation by Democratic presidential candidates. When it comes to other countries or our own cities, the Electoral College is rightly seen as an archaic relic unbefitting of any modern democracy. Only with respect to the presidency does anyone continue to defend it. 

We know why in practice the Electoral College has political supporters—Donald Trump wouldn’t be president without it, and the same for George W. Bush before him. Republicans have naturally drawn the conclusion that the Electoral College helps elect their candidates, and indeed may be the only path for electoral victory. And so, they grasp at whatever available straw, without giving their real reason for defending the system: “Because I want to win.”

Even that rationale sits atop shaky ground. I’m so old that I can remember the 2016 election, with its talk of Hillary Clinton’s blue firewall virtually assuring her the presidency, regardless of the popular vote. It’s not hard to imagine a Democrat benefiting from the Electoral College—Barack Obama significantly outperformed his popular vote share in the final electoral vote tally in both the 2008 and 2012 elections. Move a big state like Texas, or mid-sized states like Arizona and Georgia, with their growing ethnic diversity, into the Democratic column, and electing a president from the left without winning the most votes can become reality. The Electoral College helping Republicans is not an iron law.

But political polarization breeds contempt for logic, and so we are left with hoop-jumping to prove the superiority of an undemocratic system, which would violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment if introduced out of the blue today. The Electoral College equalizes the influence of small states, they say; actually it’s just battleground states that get attention, be they large or small. The Electoral College allows rural voters to have their issues heard, they insist; this falls apart as soon as you consider how policy has disadvantaged rural America over the past several decades.

Ross Douthat at least entertains us with an original justification. The Electoral College, he writes, gives candidates and parties incentives to avoid a play-to-the-base strategy in regional strongholds—one that might fail because of the idiosyncrasies of the system—and instead builds broad popular support. In making his case, Douthat studiously avoids the 2000 election, whose outcome was primarily due to the anomaly of a third-party spoiler in one closely-contested state. Douthat mentions in passing that George W. Bush adapted to gain a majority in 2004, but that was entirely due to … a play-to-the-base strategy in regional strongholds.

As Douthat acknowledges, our current era of death-match polarization invites future non-majority presidents, on both sides, which just fuels disillusionment about a corrupt system. Again, maybe this is why we never considered placing such a system in the constitutions we wrote in places like Iraq, which if you didn’t know, has a minor polarization problemamong its population.

The only remotely credible objection to a national popular vote system I’ve seen is that it would be difficult (but not impossible) to conduct a recount of 125 million-odd votes in the event of a close race. However, it’s worth pointing out that only two of America’s 58 presidential elections (in 1880 and 1960) have resulted in a race with less than half a percent of the vote separating the top vote-getters, a typical threshold to trigger a statewide recount.

Our constitution’s high bar for amendment makes bipartisan reform on this matter currently impossible, at least until the moment Republicans win a popular vote and lose the election. But the National Popular Voteinterstate compact, which uses the Constitution’s own flexibility for states to determine how to issue electoral votes, is the law in thirteen jurisdictions with 181 electoral votes, with bills in Delaware (3) and New Mexico (5) awaiting the governor’s signature. That means 81 more electoral votes would trigger the compact. 

Right now, only Democrats will approve such a system. But if the 2018 results lead to a more balanced legislative map in gerrymandered states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, it’s not at all impossible for Democrats to get a secure majority by 2022 in enough states to put the National Popular Vote over the top, and end this fake debate once and for all.

That brings us to the final and most pernicious likely foe of ditching the Electoral College—political consultants. The current system limits the states needed to win the presidency and allows campaigns to focus their efforts; political prognosticator Larry Sabato sees only four genuine toss-ups in the 2020 election. But a popular-vote scenario would yield multiple potential strategies. Some might appeal to base voters; others would pursue non-voters. Some might target large urban areas, or suburban ones, or exurbs, or mid-sized cities. Some might seek to run up margins among racial, regional, gender, or even hobby-based subgroups. Any of them could be successful.

This may make those who do politics for a living nervous. They might actually have to think about how to win. They might have to find enough volunteers to cover the whole country, which means generating legitimate and intense popular support. They might have to persuade voters with big ideas that inspire action.

I mean, why would we ever want that?

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