During each presidential election cycle, the topic of the United States switching to a direct popular vote as a means to elect our next president arises. Many Americans find the current Electoral College system confusing and feel that they are precluded from having a voice in the selection of the president. A Gallup poll in 2011 revealed the 62% of Americans would prefer a direct popular vote to elect the president, while only 35% favored retaining the current Electoral College.
In 2000 Gore had a half million more votes than Bush
In American history, four persons have been elected President while failing to win the popular vote:
In 1824 when John Quincy Adams came in second to Andrew Jackson in both the popular vote and the Electoral College but was elected by the House of Representatives after Jackson failed to reach a majority in the Electoral College.
In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes won the election in the Electoral College but was second in the popular vote by some 250,000 ballots.
In 1888, Benjamin Harrison received 233 electoral votes to Grover Cleveland’s 168 but trailed Cleveland in the popular vote by more than 90,000 votes.
In 2000, George Bush won the electoral vote, 271 to 266, but Al Gore had 540,000 more popular votes.
The 2000 election, where Al Gore had more than a half million more votes than did George W. Bush, prompted extensive discussion about changing the voting system to a direct vote. However, doing so would require an amendment to the Constitution which would be a long and cumbersome process and interest faded over time.
‘One man-one vote’ concept is the cornerstone of democracy
Proponents of changing to a direct election system argue that the advantages are severalfold. It would assure that the person elected President would truly represent the will of the voters across the entire country and avoid a repeat of the 2000 election. It would also come closer to honoring the ‘one man-one vote’ concept that many view as the cornerstone of democracy. The argument is made that the current system incentivizes candidates to limit their campaign to the eight to twelve states that are considered ‘battleground states’ in each election and ignore the rest. Voters in Florida will see Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump multiple times over the next two months, while voters in North Dakota will not get any visits or see much in the way of campaign ads.
Electoral College protects states’ rights
The counterargument to changing the Electoral College system is that it undermines federalism by undercutting the role of individual states in the election of the president. The framers of the Constitution, as amended the by the12th Amendment, made a deliberate decision that the Electoral College was the best way to retain the rights of the individual states.
There is also concern a direct vote system would cause candidates to ignore voters in small rural areas and focus their campaign on the voters that live in the 10 largest media markets (which comprises about 40% of the population). The good folks in North Dakota still would not receive much attention.
The importance of smaller States is highlighted on this year’s map of battleground states as put together by Politico. Several small States such as New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada are considered key states, just as are larger states such as Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
National Popular Vote has passed in eleven states
There is an organization supporting the National Popular Vote (NPV) initiative that advocates for maintaining the Electoral College, but instituting a requirement that each state commit to awarding its electoral votes to the winner of the overall popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The key advantage to the NPV proposal is that it does not require a Constitutional Amendment, only the approval of enough state legislatures to reach a total of 270 electoral votes. These states would agree to award their electoral votes to the overall winner of the popular vote. To date, eleven states have passed the legislation.
However, some supporters of the direct popular vote system do not feel the NPV plan addresses the fundamental deficiencies in the Electoral College system that violates the “one person, one vote” principal. Under the NPV concept, candidates would logically focus their attention on the largest urban markets where most voters live and ignore the rest of the country. Over 50% of the population lives in just 144 counties in the U.S., while the other 49% is spread out over the remaining 2,998 counties.
Supporters of the NPV movement argue that the provisions of compact are legal and consistent with existing laws and the Constitution. Opponents of the initiative take the opposite view and argue that to implement the NPV would, at a minimum, require the approval of Congress. In either case, the issue would most likely end up before the Supreme Court.