Friday, June 27, 2008

The National Popular Vote Plan...and Other Ways of Reforming the Electoral College

We here at FHQ have certainly spent some time discussing the various ways (and likelihood) of reforming the presidential nomination process. Now that the 2008 campaign has shifted into general election mode however, it may be time to look into America's other electoral problem child, the electoral college. [When it comes to reform, often, no two things are higher on the list than the frontloading of presidential primaries and the disparity between the electoral college and the overall popular vote.]

The issue?
Well, unless you've been under a rock since early November 2000, you're probably aware that a candidate for president can win the most votes nationwide, but still lose the electoral college vote and in the process fail to become president. To some folks that's a problem (...and you can bet whoever it is they have a D next to their name for the time being.). But hey, out of 55 presidential elections in US history, only 3 have had a discrepancy between popular vote winner and the electoral college outcome (That's about 5% of the time.). In other words, about once every 75 years. Is it too much to ask for a little, once-in-a-lifetime, electoral excitement? Okay, I understand that some people have the "one person, one vote" hang up, but still.

The rules do matter, though. The popular vote isn't how the president is selected just as it wasn't the method in which the Democratic nomination was decided in 2008. That doesn't mean that those rules cannot be revisited and altered though. As sure as the rules governing the ways in which nominees are chosen will be examined in detail prior to 2012, the electoral college is going and will continue to be examined as long as the institution acts as the final hurdle of the presidential election system. There are differing views on how to deal with the issue ranging from completely do away with the electoral college to simply leaving well enough alone.

Let's look at these individually:
1) Abolish the electoral college. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), leaning on the one person, one vote argument (a powerful one, mind you), is the latest to propose amending the constitution to do away the electoral college completely. Amending the constitution solves the problem, but that isn't really the issue with this option. The means of getting to that end are what stands in the way of a change. The constitution is held sacred and altering it is not something taken lightly or easily pulled off. So while it is easy enough to say that the constitution should be amended, it is an entirely different matter to actually make the change. As good as Nelson's intentions may be (He appears to be making a play for the mantle of voting rights senator and that will certainly won't hurt his future electoral pursuits in a place like Florida.), this one probably isn't going anywhere.

2) National Popular Vote Plan: Now here's a clever way around the amendment issue. Anchor the distribution of a state's electoral votes to the national popular vote. The issue I have with this plan is similar to a point brought up by FHQ reader, Scott, in the comments the other day: the action would be shifted from battleground states to the more populous states. Instead of a red-blue-purple divide, the door could be opened to a rural-urban-suburban/exurban divide. So while the plan potentially helps to spread the attention from the typical swing states to some not so typical players, the NPV ultimately just shifts candidate attention from competitive states to populous states; the very thing the Founders were attempting to insulate the system from. But hey, candidates could raise their money and campaign in a state at the same time. This one has unintended consequences written all over it.

3) The Maine-Nebraska District Plan Nationwide (or in more than those two states): Now this idea has been bandied about in several state legislatures lately (California and North Carolina, notably). Essentially, states would allocate their electoral votes based on how each individual district voted with the two Senate seat electors being determined by the statewide outcome. This is similar to how delegates were distributed in proportional primaries in 2008. In this instance the balance of power would shift from swing states to swing districts. That could bring at least part of a state some national attention from the major party candidates. Nothing gives the Democrats more nightmares than the idea of having those 55 California electoral votes split up though. And the reverse could be true in typically Republican states. No state legislature is going to opt for this plan if the party in control of said legislature would potentially negatively affect the prospects of their national party being able to win the White House. Partisanship is the likely roadblock to this plan then.

4) The Leave it alone plan: Can you tell where I'm going with this? In the end, the most pragmatic approach is to leave well enough alone and grin and bear it when the once-in-a-lifetime, electoral college at odds with the popular vote scenario pops up. The whole thing seems like such a problem now, but when Johnson and Reagan were winning in landslides you only heard the vanquished parties calling (and quietly at that) for there to be some electoral college reform.

...and even then it wouldn't have made that much of a difference.

So is that pragmatism or the partisan gridlock that so many Americans are sick of? The comments section awaits. Feel free to weigh in.

Recent Posts:
The Electoral College Map (6/25/08)

Vice Presidents Quiz

Presidents and Vice Presidents from the Same State: The Misconception of the 12th Amendment


Unknown said...

Since making my first post on this, I actually went to the site and read the 8-page summary of the National Popular Vote plan. It's worse than I thought! It awards the Presidency to the candidate who wins a plurality of votes. In other words, if five strong candidates compete, someone could win by getting only about a quarter of the vote.

Unlikely? I'm not at all sure. Splits like that happen quite often in countries with parliamentary systems, and also those with run-off systems. I'm unaware of any country that chooses the winner based on a plurality, though; they either form a coalition government or have a run-off. If they didn't do that, they'd run a strong risk of a nut-job with a core of dedicated followers being able to sneak in when the rest of the field is split.

Of course, our current system also allows someone to win with a plurality; in fact, Kennedy and Nixon both did it, and Clinton did it twice. But since we require a majority of electoral votes, at least the candidate has to have geographic diversity and has to get the plurality again and again and again. The hypothetical 25% nut-job could never do that, because different states would end up different ways, and the candidate would be very unlikely to win in enough states to get to half of the electoral vote.

I'm shocked, actually, that a proposal that allows such a nightmare result has gained as much traction as it has. If we're going to do this by a popular vote (a choice I oppose, as Josh mentioned), then we have to do this by a Constitutional amendment with some sort of run-off provision.

Anonymous said...

Excellent addition.

I just don't see this one taking off (no matter what kind of support it has now). Change is good for me. It gives me something to look at in an academic sense. But this one is dead in the water. If it didn't change after 2000, the electoral college won't be changed now (unless we have a close one with differing winners this year).

MSS said...

Sarah, of course NPV is based on the plurality, because there is no way to mandate either a national second round or that all states ask second (and third, etc.) preferences on the first round.

So, there is simply no way to do it without using the national plurality.

I share Sarah's concerns about plurality, but in the end, there is no way to unblock the amendment process that I can see other than this plan. That is, once it was on the verge of enactment, you can bet that there will be a serious discussion of amendments (to establish a runoff, "instant" or otherwise), because the choice set would have been altered.

And, yes, some of us are "hung up" on that whole one person, one vote thing. We are called democrats. Small 'd'.

If, on the other hand, you like effectively throwing away lots of votes and weighting voters' influence on the one national office according to where they live, then you should indeed like the status quo.

Anonymous said...

Thanks MSS. I've been on the road today and put this post together in pieces. I meant to put a democratic theory angle in as well. You're completely right of course. But I'll still fall back on the argument that both realistically and pragmatically, if a change was going to be made on this front, it would have been made following the 2000 election.

Robert said...

In theory I am for one person, one vote, but, as Josh indicates, NPV does not give you one person, one vote. As long as television plays a role in national campaigns, larger metropolitan voters gain a huge advantage over rural, less-populated areas by NPV. If the Internet truly takes over with media markets becoming meaningless, then NPV could assure one person, one vote. At that point the specter of the Scott doomsday scenario becomes much more realistic.

What makes our constitution so great is that it recognizes the importance of geographical diversity and the need to balance urban and rural interests. I am willing to have a problematic election every 75 years to keep the electoral system we have now. I would prefer the Nebraska-Maine solution if it were mandated by every state, but I don't think states should unilaterally disarm.

Also, it is easy to condemn the two-party system, but it is key to how such a geographically diverse country can operate. If you have problems with two parties, spend some time and an election in a country that has more than two. It is much worse than having two. Of course a two-party state is far superior to a one-party state.

Unknown said...

Well said, Robert.

I like the Maine-Nebraska experiment because it can be implemented slowly. If Nebraska gets enough extra attention this cycle, then other smallish states may try it. (It has no effect on a state with one CD, and it dilutes the influence of big states.) Oregon, South Carolina, and West Virginia would seem like interesting candidates. I name them because they might shift from "safe" states to battlegrounds, which is a big incentive for them to do it. And maybe Oregon and South Carolina, for instance, could do it in tandem, thus splitting up one traditional blue state and one traditional red state to reduce partisan resistance.

One thing that would have to be resolved before widespread adoption of the Maine-Nebraska plan is gerrymandering of CD's. This can be done: Iowa, for instance, has reformed the process. And it's something that should be done anyway...


P.S. Does anyone know the history of why Nebraska and Maine adopted this plan in the first place?

Anonymous said...

Change is already in the works . . .

The National Popular Vote bill has been approved by 19 legislative chambers (one house in Colorado, Arkansas, Maine, North Carolina, and Washington, and two houses in Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont). It has been enacted into law in Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These states have 50 (19%) of the 270 electoral votes needed to bring this legislation into effect.

Anonymous said...

Your last sentence is the most instructive: NPV needs to have passed state legislatures in states equaling or surpassing 270 electoral votes to take effect. And while that is certainly a lower bar than having to have an amendment ratified in 3/4 of the states be added to the constitution, the 50% mark is still sufficiently high.

However, having said that, it is interesting, as Scott said, that so much has happened so quickly and without too much attention from the media. What is the tipping point in the number of state electoral votes that causes NPV to get more attention in the MSM? 100? 200? That, to me, will be something to keep an eye on between the current cycle and 2012.

Anonymous said...

We're with you on the value of primary schedule reform (see our work on, but clearly differ on the current Electoral College system. For why we think the current system is indefensible, please see our Presidential Elections Inequality report at

Note how a handful of states are showered with attention, and most states -- including nearly all small population states - are completely ignored. In contrast, when every vote is equal, a candidate and people who like a candidate cannot ignore potential voters. We know this because popular vote elections governed by the same plurality voting rules as spelled out in the national popular vote plan are used to elect nearly all our governors.

For defenders of the current system, try an experiment -- launch an effort to change your state's elections for governor and U.S. Senate to an Electoral College-type system that would make most of your people utterly ignored.