Electoral College Reform – Let’s Get It Right

As a two-term member of the U.S. Electoral College, I am very much concerned about political attacks on the institution and threats to either repeal it or circumvent it. While Democrats are understandably upset… having won the national popular vote in 2000 and 2016, while losing both contests in the Electoral College… the only doable reform that is currently under discussion is the national popular vote proposal offered by the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). But now that the 2020 campaign season is well under way, with President Trump and essentially all of the twenty or more Democratic candidates in favor of either Electoral College reform or Article V repeal, it is time to develop some real understanding of that critically important but little-understood institution.

The 2000 Bush-Cheney victory caused many Electoral College critics to search for ways in which to bypass the Electoral College. With the active support of Republicans such as former Illinois congressman John Anderson, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact was created. The NPVIC actively seeks support among the legislatures of the fifty states in support of a rule requiring that all of a member state’s electoral votes be cast for the candidates for president and vice president who receive a majority of the national popular vote… regardless of the popular vote count in each of the Compact states. However, one wonders if they are aware of the potential unintended consequences if they are successful.

In the 2016 General Election, Democrat Hillary Clinton enjoyed a 2,868,686-vote advantage in the national popular vote, while her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, won a decisive 306 to 232 vote victory in the Electoral College. It was eerily reminiscent of the 2000 General Election in which Democrat Al Gore enjoyed a 543,900-vote plurality in the national popular vote, while George W. Bush won a razor-thin 271 to 266 vote majority in the Electoral College.

What NPVIC proponents have apparently overlooked is that, in the 2000 presidential election, a switch of just 271,951 votes (just one vote out of every 373 votes cast) would have given Bush-Cheney a narrow popular vote victory, along with a 271 to 266 vote victory in the Electoral College. That popular vote shortfall could have been overcome with just one more well-placed ad buy attacking carefully selected weaknesses in the Clinton-Gore record.

On April 3, 2019, New Mexico joined California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia as the newest member of the Compact. The addition of New Mexico brought 189 of the required 270 electoral votes under the popular vote umbrella. If, and when, states representing at least 270 electoral votes, a simple majority in the Electoral College, have joined the Compact, then and only then will those states be able to eliminate any possibility of ever again electing a president and vice president with less than a majority of the national popular vote.

However, if the supporters of the NPVIC would do their homework, they would understand that, had the NPVIC rule been in effect in 2000, in every blue state in the nation, and had Bush-Cheney been able to eke out a narrow victory in the national popular vote, the states of the NPVIC would have been required, by law, to cast all 270 of their electoral votes for George Bush and Dick Cheney, in spite of the fact that 21 of the 22 states in the NPVIC would have cast a majority of their popular votes for Gore-Lieberman. In that event, the Electoral College vote would have been an unprecedented 538-0 victory for Bush-Cheney over Gore-Lieberman… an outcome that the Framers could never have foreseen.

So, if the Electoral College and the winner-take-all approach utilized by 48 of our 50 states is causing so much political heartburn for so many Americans, what are our alternatives? Many critics suggest that we simply proceed with efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution by repealing all portions of Article II, Section 1 establishing the Electoral College.

To eliminate the Electoral College by constitutional amendment would require both Houses of Congress to approve a joint resolution by a 2/3 majority vote. The proposed amendment would then be sent to the governors of the fifty states who, in turn, would formally submit the amendment to their legislatures for ratification. A proposed amendment becomes effective only when it is ratified by three-fourths (38) of the 50 states.

While repeal by constitutional amendment may be the preferred solution by many in the political arena, it is unlikely that such a joint resolution could ever receive a 2/3 vote in both Houses of Congress, let alone win ratification by 38 of the 50 states.

A proposal that would be sure to attract broad support among conservatives and Republicans… a proposal that would bring the selection of presidents and vice presidents as close as possible to the will of the people, while retaining the Electoral College… is an electoral system based on the popular vote within each county in the nation. For example, in 2012, Barack Obama carried 653 of the 3,100 counties in the country, compared to Romney’s 2,447 counties. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried just 568 counties, compared to Donald Trump’s 2,532 counties.

So, is there a reform that, while not satisfying every concern of every Electoral College critic, would: a) avoid the anguish of a prolonged constitutional amendment process, b) provide fairness to all candidates and political parties, c) avoid creating a system in which unanimous votes in the Electoral College are possible, d) eliminate the much-despised “winner-take-all” concept of the present system, and e) bring the selection of presidents and vice presidents much closer to the people?

If supporters of the NPVIC are truly interested in Electoral College reform that is far more democratic than the winner-take-all system now utilized by 48 states and the District of Columbia, they might want to consider adopting the allocation system now used by the states of Maine and Nebraska. Under that system, the winner of the statewide popular vote receives both of the state’s two at-large electoral votes. The remaining electoral votes are allocated based on the winner of the popular vote in each of the state’s congressional districts. For example, in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the statewide popular vote in the State of Maine. In doing so, she was awarded the state’s two at-large electoral votes. However, in Maine’s two congressional districts, Clinton won the popular vote in the 1st C.D. while Trump won the popular vote in the 2nd C.D. As a result, Clinton won three electoral votes in Maine, while Trump won one. In Nebraska, Trump won the popular vote in each of the state’s three congressional districts. As a result, he was awarded all five of Nebraska’s electoral votes.

The Maine-Nebraska electoral system would deemphasize the key battleground states such as Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia and require candidates to campaign in all fifty states. As matters now stand, presidential candidates spend little time in states such as California, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas because the outcome of presidential voting in those states is almost always a foregone conclusion. Had the Maine-Nebraska system been in place for the 2012 General Election, Obama would have found it necessary to defend the 15 votes that Romney could have won in California and the 6 votes he could have won in New York, while Romney could not have ignored the 12 electoral votes that Obama might have captured in Texas.

In November 2016, Donald Trump could not have ignored the 14 electoral votes available to him in California or the 9 electoral votes available to him in New York. Conversely, Hillary Clinton could not have ignored the 11 electoral votes available to her in Texas or the 5 electoral votes available to her in Michigan. By assigning more importance to local elections under the Maine-Nebraska system, interest in local politics would be enhanced and much of the negative impact of the 17th Amendment would be reversed.

Under the Maine-Nebraska system, Hillary Clinton would have gained electoral votes in nineteen states and lost votes in twelve states. Under the winner-take-all system, Trump shut out Clinton in thirty-one states, while Clinton shut out Trump in nineteen states and the District of Columbia. Under the Maine-Nebraska system, Trump would have shut out Clinton in only eleven states, while Clinton would have shut out Trump in just eight states.

In 2016, essentially all of the campaigning took place in twelve states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. However, had all states used the Maine-Nebraska system, that intensity would have spread to six additional states: California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Washington… four of the six being among our most populous states.

Electoral College critics would be well advised to do a bit more research into the potential unintended consequence of scuttling the Electoral College in favor of the national popular vote. While it is understandable that they would see unfairness in presidential elections in which the candidates receiving a plurality of the national popular vote could lose the election in the Electoral College, they will be far more upset if, after convincing state legislatures to adopt the NPVIC formula, they find that their efforts have produced a system in which unanimous 538 to 0 votes in the Electoral College, for candidates who barely eked out a majority in the national popular vote, become a real possibility. Clearly, this is not what the Framers envisioned when they established the Electoral College.

Paul R. Hollrah is a retired government relations executive and a two-time member of the U.S. Electoral College. He currently lives and writes among the hills and lakes of northeast Oklahoma’s Green Country.

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