A proposal by a Stanford CS Prof for a means to switch the U.S. Presidential race from electoral college to popular vote is gaining some momentum. In short, the proposal calls for some group of states representing a majority of the electoral college to agree to an inter-state compact that they will vote their electoral votes according to the result of the popular vote.
State compacts are like treaties but are enforceable by both state courts and federal law, so this has some merit. In addition, you actually don’t even need to get 270 electoral votes in the compact. All you really need is a much smaller number of “balanced” states. For example perhaps 60 typically republican electoral votes and 60 typically democratic electoral votes. Maybe even less. For example I think a compact with MA, IL, MN (42 Dem) and IN, AB, OK, UT, ID, KA (42 Rep) might well be enough, certainly to start. Not that it hurts if CA, NY or TX join.
That’s because normally the electoral college already follows the popular vote. If it’s not going to, the race is very close, and a fairly small number of states in the compact would be assured to swing the electoral college to the popular vote in that case. There are a few exceptions I’ll talk about below, but largely this would work.
This is unlike proposals for states to, on their own, do things like allocate their electors based on popular vote within the state, as Maine does. Such proposals don’t gain traction because there is generally going to be somebody powerful in the state who loses under such a new rule. In a state solidly behind one party, they would be fools to effectively give electoral votes to the minority party. In a balanced state, they would be giving up their coveted “swing state” status, which causes presidential candidates to give them all the attention and election-year gifts.
Even if, somehow, many states decided to switch to a proportional college, it is an unstable situation. Suddenly, any one state that is biased towards one party (both in state government and electoral college history) is highly motivated to put their candidate over the top by switching back to winner-takes-all.
There’s merit in the popular-vote-compact because it can be joined by “safe” states, so long as a similar number of safe votes from the other side join up. The safe states resent the electoral college system, it gets them ignored. Since close races are typically decided by a single mid-sized state, even a very small compact could be surprisingly effective — just 3 or 4 states!
The current “swing state” set is AZ, AR, CO, FL, IA, ME, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, OR, PA, VA, WA, WV, and WI, though of course this set changes over time. However, once states commit to a compact, they will be stuck with it, even if it goes against their interests down the road.
The one thing that interferes with the small-compact is that even the giant states like New York, Texas and California can become swing states if the “other” party runs a native candidate. California in particular. (In 1984 Mondale won only Minnesota, and got just under 50% of the vote. Anything can happen.) That’s why you don’t just get an “instant effective compact” from just 3 states like California matching Texas and Indiana. But there are small sets that probably would work.
Also, a tiny compact such as I propose would not undo the “campaign only in swing states” system so easily. A candidate who worked only on swing states (and won them) could outdo the extra margin now needed because of the compact. In theory. If the compact grew (with non-swing states, annoyed at this, joining it) this would eventually fade.
Of course the next question may surprise you. Is it a good idea to switch from the electoral college system? 4 times the winner of the popular vote has lost (strangely, 3 of those have been the 3 times the winner was the son — GWB, Adams - or grandson - Harrison- of a President) the White House. The framers of the consitution, while they did not envision the two party system we see today, intended for the winner of the popular vote to be able to lose the electoral college.
When they designed the system, they wanted to protect against the idea of a “regional” president. A regional winner would be a candidate with extreme popularity in some small geographic region. Imagine a candidate able to take 90% of the vote in their home region, that region being 1/3 of the population. Imagine them being less popular in the other 2/3 of the country, only getting 31% of the vote there. This candidate wins the popular vote, but would lose the electoral college (quite solidly.) Real examples would not be so simple. The framers did not want a candidate who really represented only a small portion of the country in power. The wanted to require that a candidate have some level of national support.
The Civil War provides an example of the setting for such extreme conditions. In that sort of schism, it’s easy to imagine one region rallying around a candidate very strongly, while the rest of the nation remains unsure.
Do we reach their goal today? Perhaps not. However, we must take care before we abandon their goal to make sure it’s what we want to do.
Update: See the comments for discussion of ties. Also, I failed to discuss another important issue to me, that of 3rd parties. The electoral debacle of 2000 hurt 3rd parties a lot, with a major “Ralph don’t run” campaign that told 3rd parties, “don’t you dare run if you could actually make a difference.” A national popular vote would continue, and possibly strengthen the bias against 3rd parties. Some 3rd parties have been proposing what they call a “safe state” strategy, where they tell voters to only vote for their presidential candidate in the safe states. This allows them to demonstrate how much support they are getting (and with luck the press reports their safe-state percentage rather than national percentage) without spoiling or being accused of spoiling.
Of course, I think the answer for that would be a preferential ballot, which would have to be done on a state by state basis, and might not mesh well with the compact under discussion.