Rob Richie and Ryan O'Donnell

States Plan a More Perfect Union

Any poll will tell you. The vast majority of Americans favor electing the president by national popular vote over the remarkably dysfunctional current Electoral College system. This should be no surprise. The current system makes most Americans irrelevant in the most important election we hold.

Congress has considered more amendments to reform the Electoral College than any other subject. One chamber has given the necessary two-thirds majority for change several times. Reform was very close at hand in 1969 when backers included the AFL-CIO, Chamber of Commerce, Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush. Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.

Today the Electoral College causes more harm to the principles of equality, accountability and majority rule than ever before. Still, political leaders almost never talk about it. They've given up, ignoring the reality of how the current system is impairing American democracy in the 21st century.

For almost a year, an innovate campaign has been working to turn that conventional wisdom on its head. You're about to hear a whole lot more about it.

With the endorsement of groups like FairVote and Common Cause and former Members of Congress from across the political spectrum, National Popular Vote is pursuing a state-based approach. Its plan does not call for abolishing the Electoral College. On the contrary, it recognizes that the Constitution already grants states the power to make the Electoral College work for all Americans.

Under the Constitution, states have exclusive power -- and responsibility -- to award their own electors in accordance to the will of their citizens. For example, Maine and Nebraska award an electoral vote to the candidate who wins each of its congressional districts. In the 19th century, many legislatures simply appointed electors without holding elections.

Most states award all their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in their state, but they could just as easily award them to the national vote winner in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. One state on its own is unlikely to make this choice, but if a group of states representing a majority of Americans and a majority of the Electoral College entered into a binding agreement to do so, then the nationwide popular vote winner would achieve an Electoral College victory every time.

States in fact regularly enter into such interstate compact. The Port Authority is a famous compact among New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The National Popular Vote compact ensures the national popular vote agreement stays in place through an election. One by one, more and more states will start joining the agreement. It will go into effect only when the number of participating states yields 270 electoral votes, and becomes decisive in electing the president.

The National Popular Vote has had remarkable success since going public last February.The Assembly and Senate in California passed the plan, as did the Colorado Senate. In Illinois, the proposal has been sponsored by more than 40 legislators, including Democrats, Republicans and independents. Legislators have now committed to introducing the National Popular Vote agreement in all 50 states. This explosion of support in states shows how eager the American people are for change.

It couldn't come any sooner. In today's climate of partisan polarization, the current Electoral College system shuts out most of the country from meaningful participation by turning naturally "purple" states into simple "red" and "blue." The result is a two-tiered system, with a declining number of Americans that matter and a majority that don't. Youth turnout was 17% higher in presidential battlegrounds than the rest of the nation in 2004 -- double the disparity just four years before. The presidential campaigns and their allies spent more money on ads in Florida in the final month of the campaign than their combined spending in 46 other states.

These violations of political equality make the case for reform particularly pressing. Popular vote reversals are certainly a problem -- Al Gore won more votes than George Bush in 2000, and Bush narrowly escaped a 2004 defeat when a shift of less than 60,000 votes in Ohio would have trumped his national margin of three and a half million votes -- but what's so new and disturbing is the shrinking presidential battleground.

Candidates for our one national office should have incentives to speak to everyone, and all Americans should have the power to hold their president accountable. We're well on our way toward that goal with the National Popular Vote campaign. Even if it's not in place by 2008, we suspect that election will be our last state-by-state vote for president.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit election reform group. Ryan O'Donnell directs FairVote Action Maryland. Learn more at visit


From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2007

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2007 The Progressive Populist.