The Electoral College is an arcane, undemocratic and unrepresentative method of electing presidents. It is a system in which the will of the majority is often ignored, where a minority of voters can and, in the past, has elected a candidate. Recent elections have encouraged discussion about abolishing the Electoral College, and the topic seems as prevalent as ever. To address the Electoral College, the United States should look to a national popular vote system, the same system currently used in all state and congressional elections.
Making such a systemic change seems impossible. Many assume a constitutional amendment would be required, which would certainly never be passed given large-scale opposition. However, a little discussed solution called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would help facilitate a functional popular vote system while still technically keeping the Electoral College. Under the NPVIC, states would automatically send their electoral votes to the candidate that won the popular vote, regardless of whether the candidate won their individual state. The Compact would come into effect when the combined electoral votes of participating states exceeds 270.
There are numerous reasons to support the NPVIC over the Electoral College system, namely that it would increase voter turnout and that an Electoral College system is unrepresentative of the will of the people.
Because the Electoral College is state-centered, and a majority of states are dominated by one of the two major political parties, most states’ results are essentially predetermined. This is why the media often calls the results of certain states early on election night, even when far less than 100% of the votes are in. When voters are aware that their home state is overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic, and there is little-to-no chance the race would be remotely close, they have substantially less incentive to participate.
A national popular vote — something the NPVIC would essentially implement — would eliminate this problem because each vote would be no less determinative than the next. A voter in deep blue California would have just as much of an incentive to vote as voters in battleground Michigan because their vote would impact the national popular vote, having more of an effect on the outcome of the election than it would in their hyper-partisan state.
The Electoral College also hurts voter engagement with candidates, as candidates usually limit their general election campaign to about 10 battleground states. Presidential candidates have no incentive to go to New York or Alabama, since those states are polarized beyond what a campaign stop could do. This means that a majority of states receive zero visits from either presidential candidates or their leading campaigners during a general election and see almost no advertisements highlighting candidates’ policies.
Moreover, candidates tailor their campaign to the small number of swing states and disproportionately emphasize issues relevant to them, while ignoring leading issues in the rest of the country. Once again, this issue would be alleviated under a popular vote system. Gaining a few extra percentage points of the vote in a state candidates can’t win a majority in by visiting it and taking its needs into account would be beneficial to a candidate in a popular vote system in a way it is not currently..
The basic fact of the matter is that the U.S. electoral system currently ignores the will of the people. It is blatantly undemocratic when a candidate wins an election despite receiving almost 3 million fewer voters than his competitor. In 2004, if Democratic nominee John Kerry had won 60,000 more votes in Ohio, he would have won the election, despite losing the popular vote by almost a million. That would have been undemocratic, as it was in the five historical elections where the victor lost the popular vote.
Another reason the system is unrepresentative is that, because certain states have more electors per capita than others, it overweights voters in certain states, giving them more swing and voting power than other Americans. For example, a voter in California has roughly a third of the voting power as a voter in Wyoming.
Additional problems include the fact that the Electoral College — except in two states — is a winner-take-all system. This means that a candidate who wins 50.1% of 75% of the vote in a particular state yields the same result — 100% of the electoral votes. Once again, this would not be the case under the NPVIC.
Lastly, the Electoral College is an arcane and outdated system, something that has been exposed in frighteningly greater detail since the last election. Last year, we saw an unprecedented attempt to exploit the functionality of the Electoral College system in order to overturn a free and fair election.
The NPVIC proposal is not without its critics. Foremost is the worry that all the candidates’ attention would shift to the more populous states. First, even if this were to happen, more voters would be reached. The 10 most populous states combine for substantially more voters than the 10 most competitive battleground states. Moreover, this thinking is simply flawed. In a popular vote system, a candidate would eventually (more or less) maximize the influence a visit in a particular state could have. However, in an Electoral College system, the other 40 or so states are considered unreachable, so candidates are forced to travel the same campaign trail over and over. With a popular vote system, there will always be a benefit to going to any state. Moving the needle two points by way of ad spending and campaign rallies in Mississippi would actually mean something. With the Electoral College, it doesn’t.
An avenue to a national popular vote is possible. Today, the Compact has 195 of the necessary 270 electoral votes for it to come into effect. If it were to take hold, the nation would be more equitable, more democratic and more representative of the people than ever before.
Devon Hesano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.