Unpopular Vote: Enemies of the Electoral College Aim to Scrap the Founders' Design

Article excerpt

During the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton remarked in Federalist 68 that the method of presidential selection was "almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents." If only we could say the same today.

From the problematic election of 1800, which resulted in tweaking the system with the Twelfth Amendment, to the Florida recount in 2000, the Electoral College has become the most maligned and least appreciated aspect of America's constitutional order. Opponents have introduced hundreds of bills seeking to amend the Constitution to replace the college with some variation of a national popular vote.

Now its foes have given up trying to amend the Constitution through traditional methods. They have created a new scheme to get around the built-in impediments to electoral reform; they call their effort the "National Popular Vote Plan" (NPV), and they have been quietly making progress toward its adoption. One proponent, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, has been so bold as to admit, "this is an effort to circumvent the cumbersome process of amending the Constitution. That's the only practical way of moving toward a more democratic system."

The NPV was first advanced by computer engineer John R. Koza, best known for co-inventing the rub-off instant lottery ticket. The plan asks state legislatures to pledge all of their state's electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote once NPV goes into effect, which will happen when enough states have enacted the legislation to control the 270 electoral votes necessary to elect a president.

Backers of the plan are carrying out a stealthy and disciplined state-by-state campaign. Over 2,100 state legislators are now on board, and the plan has already passed in eight states--Vermont, Maryland, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, and Hawaii--and the District of Columbia, which together control 132 electoral votes. It has recently cleared single legislative chambers in New York, Rhode Island, and Delaware. NPV activists are halfway to their goal of transforming presidential elections.

Though it would have radical implications for American politics, this revolution is being accomplished without a national discussion and largely without serious debate at the state level. This is just how Koza and NPV's supporters want it. The lottery king would gamble our future on a clever scheme to void the delicate compromises created by our Founders.

The mode of selecting the chief executive was one of the most difficult problems to confront the men assembled at the Constitutional Convention during the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787. There had never been a similar office created and they returned to it throughout the convention.

Three basic and sometimes competing values were at stake. First, the system would need to be based upon the republican principles of the revolution, finding its legitimacy in a recognition that the people and their communities are the ultimate source of power. Second, the system should encourage the president to be sufficiently independent that he could act his part with vigor and resolve. Third, the method of selection would have to be designed to encourage the choice of a character fit for high executive office.

Various modes of electing the president were proposed during the Constitutional Convention, most attempting to achieve some balance between the three oft-competing goals. Each proposal can be placed into one of three general categories: popular election, election by the national legislature (or a part thereof), or selection by some version of a specially chosen body of electors or other non-national figures (such as state governors).

Direct popular election for president, as the proponents of NPV advocate today, was the subject of two explicit votes, and on both occasions it was overwhelmingly defeated. …