by Kristin Eberhard (@KristinEberhard), Sightline Institute
Most Americans think the candidate with the most votes should win the American presidency. States have the power to make that happen by simply agreeing to assign their Electoral College votes to the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide. In Cascadia, Washington has already done so and Oregon has a chance to follow suit in 2017.
The Constitution leaves it up to the states to choose how to assign their Electoral College votes, and in the 19th century, most states realized the best strategy for maximizing their voice as a state was to assign all their votes to one candidate—the state winner. The Constitution’s rules for the Electoral College don’t dictate this state-winner-take-all strategy, but once one state adopted the strategy, almost all the others followed suit. It’s a reasonable strategy for states but has terrible consequences for voters. And it doesn’t even do the things its defenders claim, such as protecting small states.
But there is a simple way for states to exercise the power the Founding Fathers gave them: join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would make every voter in every state count equally. The Electoral College stays in place—no Constitutional amendment required. But voters in every state would matter. Presidential candidates would vie to win the most votes across the country instead of scuffling over voters in a dozen swing states.
In my previous article, I explained how the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact cleverly uses state powers to fix today’s problems with the Electoral College. Below, I dive deeper into the history and consequences of the Electoral College, debunk common defenses of its current set-up, and dispel common arguments against a new Electoral College system that would implement a national popular vote.
The Founding Fathers intended to bestow the power to select the president on a small group of men “most likely to possess the information and discernment” necessary to choose a good president. Those wise electors would get together and deliberate, protecting the presidency from dangerous demagogues and con artists who might fool the masses but couldn’t fool the electors. That protection doesn’t sound so bad. The problem is, the Electoral College doesn’t actually work that way and never has.
In fact, the electors don’t deliberate. They vote how the state legislature tells them to, and for the past century or more, most state legislatures have told them to cast all their votes for the candidate who won the most votes in the state. The state-winner-take-all Electoral College strategy translates to “red” states and “blue” states, obfuscating voters’ political diversity within state boundaries. It lets every eligible voter cast a vote for the president, but it makes some votes count more than others, distorting presidential campaigns and effectively disenfranchising huge swaths of American voters.
Votes in swing state are worth more than votes in “safe” states
Under the current state-winner-take-all strategy, votes in swing states are worth more. Because winning 51 percent of the votes in a state yields exactly the same number of Electoral College votes as winning 71 percent of the votes in that state, campaigns ignore voters in “safe” states where the margin is greater than 5 percent—meaning they ignore the vast majority of American voters—and only campaign in the states where margins are close.
In 2016, candidates lavished 91 percent of their campaign stops on the 11 states with close margins. They made two-thirds of their campaign stops in just six states with margins under 2 percent.
Most states choose to give 100 percent of their Electoral College votes to one candidate, even when the other candidate won close to half the votes in that state. This state-winner-take-all system elevates a few hundred thousand votes in a few swing states to game-changing status. But candidates can safely ignore the tens of millions of voters in “safe” states—38 states plus DC. Millions of voters continue to turn in their ballots, even though their vote has no power to change the outcome of the presidential election.
In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won 2.7 million more votes than Donald Trump; so far, Clinton has won 65.5 million votes (48.2 percent) to Trump’s 62.8 million (46.2 percent). But Donald Trump won the election because the state-winner-take-all Electoral College system weighted just 107,000 voters in three swing states as counting more than 100 million other voters across the rest of the country.
One analysis attempts to calculate the combined effect of unequal distribution of Electoral College votes and unequal electoral power between swing states and “safe” states. It estimates that Idaho ranks 39th, Oregon ranks 36th, and Washington 40th in terms of the power each voter wields in the presidential election. The state-winner-take-all Electoral College system is not kind to Cascadia.
Votes in some small states are worth more than votes in large states
A Wyoming voter has almost four times the power of a New York voter to elect the president. States get one electoral vote for each US senator and one for each representative. And since every state has two senators no matter its size, Wyoming has three electoral votes for its half a million residents (one for each US senator and one for its single representative). That works out to one electoral vote per 142,741 people. New York’s 20 million residents have one electoral vote for every 519,075 people.
Minority party votes within a state do nothing to elect the president
Are you a Republican in Oregon? A Democrat in Idaho? Thanks for voting, but your vote does nothing. The current red-state-blue-state Electoral College strategy means Oregon will assign 100 percent of its Electoral College votes to the Democrat no matter how many Oregonians like you turned in a ballot. Idaho will do the same for the Republican candidate.
You could vote or you could just watch Netflix. You could organize everyone in your community to vote with you. Or not. Your down-ballot choices will matter, but when it comes to electing the president, it really doesn’t matter what you and like-minded people in your state do.
One solution? Use the Electoral College to create a national popular vote.
A new Electoral College strategy would make every vote count
States can sign on to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, agreeing to assign all their Electoral votes to the national popular winner once signatories add up to 270 Electoral votes. Changing the Electoral College status quo strategy from “win the most swing states” to “win the most votes” would make every vote count. The principle of “one person, one vote” would govern America’s presidential election. One person voting in New York would have exactly as much power as one person voting in Wyoming. One person voting in a former “swing” state like Florida would have exactly as much power as one person voting in a former “safe” state like Oregon or Washington.
Conservatives in “blue” states and progressives in “red” states would have a voice
Watching the map light up red and blue states on election night makes one almost believe the illusion that Oregon has no Republican voters and Idaho no Democratic ones. Those voters exist, but they are silenced by the tyranny of the red-state-blue-state Electoral College system.
Pushing past the trickery of the “red” and “blue” state maps to look at county-level voting reveals a mass of Republican voters in Oregon and Democratic voters in Idaho. Those Americans patriotically voted, but officials might as well have thrown their ballots straight in the trash for all they matter to the presidential race.
With a national popular vote, on election night, we would watch a red bar and a blue bar build, vote by vote. Every single vote, no matter where it was cast, would add to that candidate’s potential victory. Republicans in Oregon and Democrats in Idaho could proudly turn in their ballots knowing they can watch their vote add to the victory bar.
Candidates would pay attention to convincible voters all over the country, not just in swing states
If every vote counted equally, a candidate would go everywhere there are convincible voters. She would travel around the country to talk with voters because every voter she wins over could push her to victory.
States might stop suppressing voters and start encouraging voter turnout
In the 19th century, states figured out they could wield the most clout in the presidential election by assigning all their electoral votes to a single candidate, so one by one they adopted the state-winner-take-all strategy. If states instead adopted a national popular vote—a national-winner-wins Electoral College strategy—the incentives would switch, and states could magnify their Electoral power by boosting the number of voters who cast ballots in the state. As a result, the rash of state voter suppression laws might reverse course. More states might start following Washington and Oregon’s lead by implementing vote-by-mail, on-line registration, early voting, automatic voter registration, and modern methods of cleaning voter rolls (not purging thousands of citizens from the voters rolls).
More people might participate in down-ticket races
States encouraging—not suppressing—voter participation, and presidential candidates paying attention to all voters might create a new buzz of voter participation across the United States. Some new voters would also pay attention to all candidates and vote down the ticket, increasing civic participation in state and local races.
The current red-state-blue-state Electoral College system does NOT do many of the things its defenders claim: It doesn’t protect small states
The current Electoral College system protects swing states, not small states. Small states have a disproportionate number of electoral votes, but this surplus doesn’t translate into election power. The only small state to receive attention during the presidential campaign is New Hampshire, because it is a swing state. The 12 small non-swing states together have 40 electoral votes—more than twice Ohio’s 18 electoral votes. However, Ohio received fully 73 of 253 post-convention campaign events in 2012 and 48 of 399 visits in 2016, while the 12 small non-swing states received zero visits in either year.
If protecting the interests of small states means electing a president who is ideologically aligned with most small state voters, the current Electoral College strategy fails again. The small states don’t have a “small state” ideology but are evenly divided between those that usually vote Republican (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming) and those that usually vote Democrat (Delaware, DC, Hawaii, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont).
Finally, one could look to the small states to see whether they think the current system is in fact better for them than a “win the most votes” strategy. Voters on both sides of the aisle in small states are chomping at the bit for a national popular vote. And of the 12 non-swing small states, ten have either signed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (DC, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Vermont), passed a bill through one house (Delaware, Maine), or introduced a bill (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota). Defenders may claim the Electoral College status quo is for the good of small states, but small states seem to disagree.
It doesn’t make the United States a republic
Some defenders of the status quo point out that the United States is a republic (a representative democracy), not a direct democracy. True. But status quo apologists intimate that a national popular vote for president would create a direct democracy. Not true. In a direct democracy, people vote on issues, not officials.
Citizens’ initiatives in Oregon and Washington are examples of direct democracy. A country where voters elect a president to represent them is still a representative democracy. It’s just a republic where every vote counts equally instead of a republic where some votes count more than others.
It doesn’t elect a president who represents the states
The United States is a federal system: a collection of state governments gathered into a single nation. The US Constitution allotted limited, enumerated powers to the federal government and reserved all others to the states. It gave state legislatures the power to choose the electors who would, in turn, choose the federal president. The Constitution does not say how legislatures must choose electors. Legislatures have complete control over that decision; they could choose electors without running a statewide election at all.
Under the current state-winner-take-all strategy, a Wyoming voter has almost four times the power of a New York voter to elect the president.
In practice, since the early 19th century, most states have conducted elections to measure popular will in their states. They have never sent electors without strong guidance as to whom those electors should vote for. Typically, electors are chosen because of their fervent support for a particular candidate, so no one even has to tell them how to vote. Since the 1820s, the Electoral College has been simply a mechanism for conveying the will of the majority of voters within each state; it’s not a deliberative body of wise elders. Electors are not the Constitutional equivalent of superdelegates. Consequently, presidential candidates campaign for the support of people, not states or legislators or electors. And they only campaign for the support of people in swing state.
The county-by-county breakdown in the map above shows that state lines have little to do with voters’ preferences. Oregon does not exhibit cohesive statewide interests. Western Oregon votes much more like western Washington than like eastern Oregon. Eastern Oregon, for its part, votes more like Idaho than Portland. Rather than pretending that states have coherent interests that they express in casting electoral votes, a national popular vote would let voters express their interests and would make every vote count.
A national-winner-wins Electoral College system would NOT do many of the things its attackers claim
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would not ditch the Electoral College or subvert the Constitution
Defenders of the status quo claim that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would “ditch” the Electoral College. Not true. The Founding Fathers gave states the power to control the Electoral College. States tried out different systems, first splitting their electoral votes, then consolidating their votes in a state-winner-take-all strategy. It is perfectly within their Constitutional power to try a national-winner-wins system, deciding to assign their electoral votes to the popular winner.
Candidates could not win a national popular vote by campaigning only in the biggest cities
Some status quo defenders worry that a national popular vote would mean candidates only have to win the big cities. But the big cities just aren’t that big. The 50 biggest US cities—which include Arlington, Texas, population 365,000—make up just 19 percent of the US population. Campaigning in those 50 cities and ignoring the rest of the country would be a losing strategy; even if a candidate was wildly successful in the cities, winning a whopping 75 percent of the vote, she would thereby tally just 14 percent of the popular vote. If candidates could win a popular election in cities alone, then candidates would already campaign only in the big cities of the swing states. Instead, presidential campaigns in Ohio visit Youngstown as well as Columbus and in Michigan they visit Allendale as well as Detroit. If every vote counted, candidates would do the same in every state.
A national popular vote would not encourage fraud
If you were trying to steal one of two hypothetical elections, which would you target:
An election that can be won or lost by 500 to 200,000 votes in one or two geographical areas governed by one or two sets of voting rules; or
an election that can only be won or lost by 500,000 to 10,000,000 voters in 50 locations with 50 different sets of voting rules.
Obviously, option (1) is more vulnerable. The 2000 presidential election came down to 537 votes in Florida—a shockingly sensitive target for fraud in a country of 300 million people. In the 2016 election, the margin of victory was 11,837 votes in Michigan; 27,257 in Wisconsin; 68,236 in Pennsylvania. An aspiring fraudster would have to be more ambitious to try to change tens of thousands of votes in three states than 500 votes in one state, but not nearly as ambitious as trying to switch the 2.7 million votes needed to change the outcome of the 2016 popular vote.
But it might improve election integrity through post-election audits
The specter of a national recount could exercise a positive impact on the integrity of American elections by spurring more states to embrace best practices for conducting routine post-election audits.
A recount is a reactive response to a crisis; when the margin is close and election officials aren’t confident the system is sufficiently free of errors that might change the election result, officials recount all votes to check the final tally. Routine post-election audits are a proactive mechanism for maintaining election integrity; by routinely auditing a statistical sample of ballots, regardless of the margin of victory, officials can reveal errors or fraud and correct them. Routine audits help officials continually improve election integrity and minimize the chance of a crisis by rooting out the potential for counting errors or fraud risks before they become a crisis. With each successive audited election, integrity improves and officials are more confident that vote counts are accurate the first time, so recounts are only needed in the closest races.
A national popular vote would not lead to a national recount
Recounts become less likely as the pool of voters gets larger. Most recounts only shift a few hundred votes. In the past six presidential elections, margins have ranged from a low of 540,000 in 2000 to 8.2 million in 1996. Even the tight 2000 race would not have warranted a national recount because of the vanishingly small likelihood that more than half a million votes could have been miscounted. But the Florida margin of 537 votes triggered a state recount (although the recount was never completed because the US Supreme Court halted it). In 2016, the national margin of 2.7 million votes comes nowhere close to recount zone, though a margin of 22,177 triggered a recount in Wisconsin.
Even as a percentage of the total vote, 2000 would not have required a recount. Recounts never shift more than a fraction of a percent of the vote, and shifts are smaller in larger voting pools. From 2000 to 2015, recounts of less than one million shifted 0.039 percent of the vote while recounts of more than two million votes shifted just 0.016 percent of the vote. The national voting pool in 2000 was 105 million so a national recount would have yielded an even smaller margin shift. But even 0.016 percent would have shifted just 16,864 votes in 2000, nowhere near enough to change the election results.
Most states set recount thresholds between 0.1 percent and 0.5 percent, with smaller margins for larger populations. After reviewing recount data, California, with a voting population of 13 million, passed a new law in 2015 setting a recount threshold of 0.015 percent for statewide races. The national voting pool is now 135 million, many times larger than any state, so a safe recount threshold would be lower than California’s 0.015 percent. Let’s say 0.01 percent. Yet even a conservative national recount threshold that’s ten times that value, 0.1 percent would have come nowhere close to triggering a recount of even the tightest presidential election in recent history; the 2000 popular vote margin was a comfortable 0.52 percent. The national margins in the other five most recent presidential races range from 1.9 percent (2016) to 8.5 percent (1996), all completely safe from recounts.
The state-by-state winner-take-all system that evolved in the early 19th century for the Electoral College’s operation creates 51 smaller voting pools, which multiplies the probability of a recount taking place in at least one. A larger national pool decreases the chances of a recount. If the desire to avoid even the possibility of a national recount spurred more states to conduct routine post-election audits and proactively weed out counting errors, as described above, the risk of recount would diminish further.
Let’s make every vote count
The Founding Fathers gave states the power to choose the way they cast electoral votes. States could seize that power and assign electoral votes to the popular winner, making the United States a true representative democracy. Every vote would count. Every American voter would have equal power to elect the president.
Republished with kind permission of the author and Sightline. This article is part of the Sightline series Archaic Election Methods Cripple Democracy.