How the States Could Make Presidential Voting Great

They have the power to reform the undemocratic Electoral College system.
December 15, 2016
Washington state elector Levi Guerra, center, joined by fellow elector P. Bret Chiafalo, right, announcing that they're asking members of the Electoral College to pick a Republican "consensus candidate" rather than Donald Trump. (Steve Bloom/The Olympian via AP)
By Neal Peirce  |  Contributor
A Washington, D.C., journalist since 1960

Donald Trump won the presidency due to a surge of voters suffering from economic insecurity or harboring doubts about Hillary Clinton's character. But the majority of America's voters didn't choose Trump as their next president at all. According to the latest returns, they selected Clinton by a nationwide plurality of more than 2.8 million votes. Trump only "wins" because of the antique Electoral College system written into our Constitution two centuries ago.

There have been four previous occasions when the Electoral College "elected" a presidential candidate who had lost the popular vote -- 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000. That was the year that George W. Bush trailed Al Gore by 543,895 popular votes nationally but won a slim Electoral College victory, thanks to the chad-infected Florida vote and a U.S. Supreme Court decision that abruptly terminated recounting of the disputed vote there.

Why do we have this error-prone system at all? And what can we do about it? As a curious young reporter in the 1960s, I decided to write a book on the Electoral College. My research quickly showed that our Founding Fathers, at the Constitutional Convention, were hard-put to design a method for choosing the president. At the time, states' rights were given priority, partly as a price of convincing 13 independent colonies spread up and down the eastern seaboard to agree to a binding form of national government.

So for choosing a chief executive, a system of presidential electors was chosen. The electors would be selected as state legislatures pleased, with each state's electoral vote reflecting its total congressional representation. There was some talk, even by Alexander Hamilton, of wise and informed electors. But the Electoral College, I discovered, was basically born out of short-term political expediency. It was assumed that future generations would correct its shortcomings.

With that in mind, for the title of my book I chose -- perhaps too hopefully -- "The People's President," with the subtitle "The Electoral College in American History and the Direct Vote Alternative."

Re-reading the Electoral College debates of the 1960s and '70s, it's stunning to see how big chunks of the nation's public policy world spoke out in those years to endorse direct popular election of the president. Among the endorsing groups were the American Bar Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP. The American public was overwhelmingly in support: A 1968 Gallup survey found 81 percent supporting a direct vote system. And in 1969, the House of Representatives voted 338-70 for a constitutional amendment to substitute direct vote of the people.

But on the Senate floor the direct vote proposal was filibustered extensively -- and in the end effectively. Another effort was made in the late 1970s, but by then the politics had changed. Two organizations that calculated they'd lose their existing big-state influence in the Electoral College, the National Urban League and the American Jewish Congress, testified against reform. Before the final Senate vote in 1979, several progressive senators, among them New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Illinois Republican Charles Percy and Maine Democrat Edmund Muskie, switched to opposition.

A hopeless cause -- that's the way direct vote proponents have seen the prospects of Congress passing a constitutional amendment ever since.

But there is hope. In 2006, a group was formed to support a "National Popular Vote plan" based on a strategy devised by John Koza, a Stanford University computer scientist. The concept's simple: an agreement among states to award all of their respective electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide.

So far the proposal has been adopted by 10 states and the District of Columbia, which among them control 165 electoral votes, or 61 percent of those needed to give the compact legal force. But with vote-rich California, Illinois and New York already on board, the proposal will have to pick up a large group of medium- and smaller-sized states. That may be a tough challenge, despite the fact that Americans seem to like the idea: Polls have shown such margins as 62 percent in favor in Arizona, 80 percent in Arkansas, 70 percent in California, 68 percent Colorado, 73 percent in Connecticut, 75 percent in Delaware and 77 percent in Ohio.

One thing's certain: Should the National Popular Vote plan be adopted by enough states, we'd see a stunning reversal of the Electoral College missteps of the last two centuries.

And we'd democratize the process geographically. Preoccupied with key states, the presidential campaigns treat lots of America as irrelevant fly-over territory. Two thirds of the leading presidential candidates' appearances in this year's general election season occurred in just 12 states, from 71 visits in Florida and 55 in North Carolina to 21 in New Hampshire and 10 in Arizona. Meanwhile, there were 16 states without a single visit, including Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Massive California received just one visit.

Amazingly, reform has an unexpected potential ally: Donald Trump, who in 2012 described the Electoral College as a "a disaster for a democracy ... a total sham and a travesty." He says now that he'd have campaigned quite differently this year if it hadn't been for the Electoral College system. And on CBS' "60 Minutes" the week after his election, Trump said: "I would rather see it, where you went with simple votes … because it brings all the states into play."

Right on, Mr. Trump -- finally, after 227 years, a system that lets every citizen's vote for president have an equal weight.