constitutionBy John Hendrickson

The Electoral College is one of the most misunderstood aspects of American government and historically it has come under fire for being “un-democratic.” The most recent attempt to undermine the Electoral College is from The National Popular Vote Movement (NPV).

NPV’s objective is to change the Electoral College system to be based upon the winner of the national popular vote. The NPV campaign is attempting to get state Legislatures to pass legislation to commit their state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. According to NPV, Legislatures in eight states as well as the District of Columbia have passed legislation to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. Advocates of the NPV claim that this approach to electing the President is more “democratic.”

Under the current system most states, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, which have proportional systems, award the electoral votes based upon a winner-take-all basis. In total, there are 538 electoral votes and a candidate must receive 270 to win the election.

The first argument in favor of the Electoral College is that it works, but more importantly, it is a vital part of our federal constitutional structure. Electing the President based upon a direct national vote, which the Framers rejected, would undermine the small states. Candidates would only need to campaign in large urban centers; small states, such as Iowa, would be bypassed completely.

The Electoral College requires both presidential candidates and political parties to build broad coalitions in order to win elections. For example, Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan built political coalitions that were broad-based. A national popular vote would undermine stability in presidential elections, resulting in undermining the two-party system, confusing and drawn-out ballot recounts, and higher chances of voter fraud.

Iowa and the nation should seriously think about the constitutional implications for supporting a direct popular vote of the President. Preservation of the Electoral College is a vital necessity for our constitutional republic.

John Hendrickson is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

15 comments
  1. Some points to consider.

    To clarify: We are a Democratic Republic. It’s not an either/or.

    Our federal Constitutional structure permits states to award electoral votes however they so choose. It makes no provision for the winner-take-all rule, which most of the founders never lived to see implemented.

    I disagree with your assertion the present system works. Two-thirds of states, including 12 of the 13 smallest states are utterly ignored under the current system by candidates of both parties because they are not battleground states.

    Campaigning exclusively in the largest urban areas is an expensive way to lose. The top 50 cities only have 19% of the population, but have the most expensive ad rates. In 2004, states like Idaho, Oklahoma and Utah delivered huge vote margins for Bush. The Republican candidate would be out of his mind not to campaign in an attempt to drive turnout in those states.

    I disagree with you on voter fraud. Under the current system, would-be fraudsters can target a few hundred voters in a couple of swing states, and throw the entire election. A nationwide effort to swing hundreds of thousands of votes would be necessary under the National Popular Vote, and would be almost impossible to conduct surreptitiously.

  2. A 2009 survey of Iowa voters showed 75% overall support for a national popular vote for President. 
    The question was 
    “How do you think we should elect the President when we vote in the November general election: should it be the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states, or the current electoral college system?

    By political affiliation, support for a national popular vote for President was 82% among Democrats, 63% among Republicans, and 77% among others.
    By age, support was 76% among 18-29 year olds, 65% among 30-45 year olds, 76% among 46-65 year olds, and 80% for those older than 65.
    By gender, support was 82% among women and 67% among men.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral
    votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA- 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and
    WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    NationalPopularVote
    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via nationalpopularvoteinc

  3. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the
    Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50
    states (and DC), without undermining the Constitution.

                                                                                            

    The
    National Popular Vote bill preserves the constitutionally mandated Electoral
    College and state control of elections. 
    It changes the way electoral votes are awarded by states in the
    Electoral College, instead of the current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all
    system (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states).
    It ensures that every vote is equal, every voter will matter, in every state,
    in every presidential election, and the candidate with the most votes wins, as
    in virtually every other election in the country.

                                                                             

    Under National Popular Vote,
    every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every
    presidential election. Every vote would be included in the state counts and national
    count. The candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC would
    get the 270+ Electoral College votes from the enacting states.  That majority of Electoral College votes guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50
    states and DC wins the presidency.

                                                     

    National
    Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state.  Now their votes are counted only for
    the candidate they did not vote for. Now they don’t matter to their
    candidate. 

     

    And now votes, beyond the one
    needed to get the most votes in the state, for winning candidates in a state
    are wasted and don’t matter to candidates. 
    Utah (5 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 385,000
    “wasted” votes for Bush in 2004. 8 small western states, with less
    than a third of California’s population, provided Bush with a bigger margin
    (1,283,076) than California provided Kerry (1,235,659).

     

     With
    National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere
    would be counted equally for, and directly assist, the candidate for whom it
    was cast. 

  4. Prior to arriving at the eventual wording of section 1 of Article II, the Constitutional Convention specifically voted against a number of different methods for selecting the President, including
    ● having state legislatures choose the President,
    ● having governors choose the President, and
    ● a national popular vote. 

    After these (and other) methods were debated and rejected, the Constitutional Convention decided to leave the entire matter to the states.

    The Founding Fathers in the Constitution did not require states to allow their citizens to vote for president, much less award all their electoral votes based upon the vote of their citizens.The presidential election system we have today is not in the Constitution. State-by-state winner-take-all laws to award Electoral College votes, were eventually enacted by states, using their exclusive power to do so, AFTER the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution. Now our current system can be changed by state laws again.

    Unable to agree on any particular method for selecting presidential electors, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method exclusively to the states in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution– “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . .”   The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

    The constitution does not prohibit any of the methods that were debated and rejected.  Indeed, a majority of the states appointed
    their presidential electors using two of the rejected methods in the nation’s first presidential election in 1789 (i.e., appointment by the legislature and by the governor and his cabinet).  Presidential electors were appointed by state legislatures for almost a century.

     Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation’s first presidential election.

    In 1789, in the nation’s first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote, and only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all method to award electoral votes.

    The current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state) is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. It is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the debates of the Constitutional Convention, or the Federalist Papers. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all method.

    The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding the state’s
    electoral votes.
     
     As a result of changes in state laws enacted since 1789, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the state-by-state winner-take-all method is used by 48 of the 50 states. States can, and frequently have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years. Maine and Nebraska not using the winner-take-all method, is a reminder that an amendment to the U.S. Constitution is not required to change the way the President is elected.

  5. The current state-by-state winner-take-all system does not
    protect the two-party system. It simply discriminates against third-party candidates with broad-based support, while rewarding regional third-party candidates. In 1948, Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace both got about 1.1 million popular votes, but Thurmond got 39 electoral votes (because his vote was concentrated in southern states), whereas Henry Wallace got none. Similarly, George Wallace got 46 electoral votes with 13% of the votes in 1968,
    while Ross Perot got 0 electoral votes with 19% of the national popular vote in 1992. The only thing the current system does is to punish candidates whose support is broadly based.

  6. The idea that recounts will be likely and messy with National Popular Vote is distracting.

    The 2000 presidential election was an artificial crisis created because of Bush’s lead of 537 popular votes in Florida. Gore’s nationwide lead was 537,179 popular votes (1,000 times larger).
    Given the miniscule number of votes that are changed by a typical statewide recount (averaging only 274 votes); no one would have requested a recount or disputed the results in 2000 if the national popular vote had controlled the outcome. Indeed, no one (except perhaps almanac writers and trivia buffs) would have cared that one of the candidates happened to have a 537-vote margin in Florida.

    Recounts are far more likely in the current system of state-by-state winner-take-all methods.

    The possibility of recounts should not even be a consideration in debating the merits of a national popular vote. No one has ever suggested that the possibility of a recount constitutes a valid reason
    why state governors or U.S. Senators, for example, should not be elected by a popular vote.

    The question of recounts comes to mind in connection with presidential elections only because the current system so frequently creates artificial crises and unnecessary disputes.

    We do and would vote state by state. Each state manages its own election and is prepared to conduct a recount.

    The state-by-state winner-take-all system is not a firewall, but instead causes unnecessary fires.

    Given that there is a recount only once in about 160 statewide elections, and given there is a presidential election once every four years, one would expect a recount about once in 640 years with the National Popular Vote. The actual probability of a close national election would be even less than that because recounts are less
    likely with larger pools of votes.

    The average change in the margin of victory as a result of a statewide recount was a mere 296 votes in a 10-year study of 2,884
    elections.

    No recount would have been warranted in any of the nation’s 56 previous presidential elections if the outcome had been based on
    the nationwide count.
                             
    The common nationwide date for meeting of the Electoral College has been set by federal law as the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.  With both the current system and the National Popular Vote approach, all counting, recounting, and judicial proceedings must be conducted so as to reach a “final determination” prior to the meeting of the Electoral College.  In
    particular, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that the states are expected to make their “final determination” six days before the Electoral College meets.

  7. Every state elects its governor by a direct popular vote.  Is the author claiming that governors get elected without building a broad coalition?

    France elects its president with a direct popular vote and holds a run-off two weeks later if no one gets 50% the first time.  It seems to work fine for France.

    1. Richard, comparing state elections to a federal one is comparing apples to oranges.

      You and everybody else who has commented thus far seem to miss the central point – the populous states would ramrod their wishes over the smaller states. A candidate who wins the electoral college has broader appeal across the nation. A sole national popular vote would mean we’d have flyover country and then we’d have California, New York, Texas and Florida.
      The popular vote in each state determines the electors. It has worked well thus far only on two or three occasions did the electoral college vote not match up with the popular vote and only once in my lifetime and then it was extremely close.

      Voters in smaller states would only be in favor of this out of ignorance because otherwise they’re giving up their vote.

      Ignorance of our founding and the Constitution is really the most likely reason this movement got its start to begin with, and had it been Gore not Bush who won on an electoral vote I’d bet we wouldn’t see this even be an issue.

      By the way, there’s no way I’m looking to France to be a model for anything let alone how to run our elections.

      1. The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of
        awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, will not reach out to about 76% of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

        Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only the current handful of closely divided “battleground” states and their voters. There is no incentive for them to bother to care about the majority of states where they are hopelessly behind or safely ahead to win. 9 of the original 13 states are considered “fly-over” now. In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives agree already, that, at most, only 12 states and their voters will matter. They will decide the election. None of the 10 most rural states will matter, as usual. About 76% of the country will be ignored –including 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and 17 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. This will be more obscene than the 2008 campaign, when candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states. Over half (57%) of the events were in just 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). In 2004, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their money and campaign visits in 5 states; over 80% in 9 states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states.

        More than 2/3rds of the states and people have been
        merely spectators to presidential elections. They have no influence. That’s more than 85 million voters ignored. When and where voters are ignored, then so are the issues they care about most.

        Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states
        are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

        The number and population of battleground states is shrinking as the U.S. population grows.

      2. Because of the state-by-state winner-take-all electoral votes laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) in 48 states, a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide.  This has occurred in 4 of the nation’s 56 (1 in 14 = 7%) presidential elections.  The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system is highlighted by the fact that a shift of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the
        second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections since World War II.  Near misses are now frequently common.  There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore’s lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide. A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes

      3. Now presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are non-competitive in presidential elections. 6 regularly vote Republican (AK, ID, MT, WY, ND, and SD), and 6
        regularly vote Democratic (RI, DE, HI, VT, ME, and DC) in presidential elections. Voters in states that are reliably red or blue don’t matter. Candidates ignore those states and the issues they care about most. Voters understand that.
                               
        Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group.  Support in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK -70%, DC -76%, DE –75%, ID -77%, ME – 77%, MT- 72%,  NE – 74%, NH–69%, NE – 72%, NM – 76%, RI – 74%,  SD- 71%, UT- 70%, VT – 75%, WV- 81%, 
        and WY- 69%.
                   
        In the lowest population states, the National Popular Vote bill has passed in nine state legislative chambers, and enacted by three jurisdictions.

      4. With the current state
        winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes, winning a bare plurality of
        the popular vote in the 11 most populous states, containing 56% of the
        population, could win the Presidency with a mere 26% of the nation’s votes.

         
        But the political
        reality is that the 11 largest states rarely agree on any political
        question.  In terms of recent
        presidential elections, the 11 largest states include five “red states
        (Texas, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Georgia) and six “blue” states
        (California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Jersey).  The fact is that the big states are just
        about as closely divided as the rest of the country.  For example, among the four largest states,
        the two largest Republican states (Texas and Florida) generated a total margin
        of 2.1 million votes for Bush, while the two largest Democratic states
        generated a total margin of 2.1 million votes for Kerry. 

         Among the 11 most populous states in 2004, the
        highest levels of popular support, hardly overwhelming, were found in the
        following seven non-battleground states:

        * Texas (62% Republican),

        * New York (59% Democratic),

        * Georgia (58% Republican),

        * North Carolina (56%
        Republican),

        * Illinois (55% Democratic),

        * California (55%
        Democratic), and

        * New Jersey (53%
        Democratic). 
        In addition, the margins generated by the nation’s largest
        states are hardly overwhelming in relation to the 122,000,000 votes cast
        nationally.  Among the 11 most populous states, the highest
        margins were the following seven non-battleground states:

        * Texas — 1,691,267 Republican

        * New York — 1,192,436 Democratic

        * Georgia — 544,634 Republican

        * North Carolina
        — 426,778 Republican

        * Illinois — 513,342 Democratic

        * California — 1,023,560 Democratic

        * New Jersey — 211,826 Democratic

        To put
        these numbers in perspective, Oklahoma (7 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 455,000  “wasted” votes for Bush in 2004 — larger than the
        margin generated by the 9th and 10th largest states,
        namely New Jersey and North Carolina (each with 15 electoral votes).  Utah (5 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 385,000 “wasted”
        votes for Bush in 2004. 8 small western states, with less than a third of California’s
        population, provided Bush with a bigger margin (1,283,076) than California
        provided Kerry (1,235,659).

      5. Hey I can copy and paste stuff too. I mean really is this all you do is copy and paste stuff from websites? You keep repeating your original comment. Stop it or I’m going to block you.

      6.  Shane,

        I don’t see how I missed that point. Under the present system, the smallest states (New Hampshire being the lone exception) are ignored. In 2004, the Bush’s margins in Oklahoma and Utah, representing 12 EV, were enough to offset 3/4 of Kerry’s margin in California, which represented 55 EV.

        For the record, the “wrong” president has been elected four times. Further, it almost happened again in 2004. Had 60,000 votes in Ohio swung the other way, Kerry would have won, even though the popular vote tallies were not particularly close.

        There is a very good chance we’ll see the same thing in 2012. A number of projections have Obama winning the Electoral College with a multi-million vote deficit. Some have an electoral vote split, which would send it to the House of Representatives. Neither scenario will be regarded as “stable”.

      7.  Elections are France are far better run than they are in the United States.  By the way, have you ever been to France?  There are lots of other characteristics of France that are better than in the U.S. also.  I have been to France.

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