Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

How the 2012 Presidential Election Has Strengthened the Movement for the National Popular Vote Plan

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

How the 2012 Presidential Election Has Strengthened the Movement for the National Popular Vote Plan

Article excerpt

The Electoral College has been the subject of more proposed amendments than any other provision of the U.S. Constitution (National Archives and Records Administration 2012). For decades, a majority of Americans has backed moving to a national popular vote in presidential elections, and polls have consistently shown that some two-thirds of Americans, across a full range of states and political ideologies, support this change (National Popular Vote 2013; Saad 2011). The most recent example is a January 2013 Gallup poll indicating that at least 60% each of Democrats, Republicans, and independents would support a national popular vote for president (Saad 2013). In the wake of an election in which the presidential campaigns focused on fewer states than ever before in the modern era, the case for change has never been stronger--and a realistic roadmap for reform has never been closer than with the National Popular Vote plan, which has garnered support in state legislatures across the country.

The problems of the current Electoral College system are grounded in state "winner-take-all" laws that award all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes in that state. Many of our nation's founders, including the Constitution's chief architect James Madison, strongly opposed such winner-take-all laws (McCarthy 2012), but by the 1830s, they had been enacted in nearly every state in order to ensure state partisans could provide maximum support for their party's nominee. Collectively, the winner-take-all rule violates fundamental principles of representative democracy.

The most obvious problem with states using the winner-take-all rule is that a candidate can lose the presidency despite earning the most votes nationwide. This reversal of the popular vote has occurred in four of our nation's 52 presidential elections, or one-in-13 times, and it has occurred one-in-seven times in close elections won by less than 10%. We experienced a "wrong winner" in 2000 and only narrowly avoided it in 2004, when John Kerry would have won the White House with a shift of fewer than 60,000 votes in Ohio despite George W. Bush's popular vote lead of more than three million votes. If one assumes a uniform swing in the popular vote across all states, Barack Obama would still have been elected in both 2008 and 2012, even if he had lost nationally by more than a million votes--for example, Obama's 2012 national margin was 3.7%, but his margin in the tipping point state of Colorado, which Mitt Romney would have needed to win in order to reach the 270 electoral vote threshold, was a larger 3.4% (National Archives and Record Administration 2013). (1)

Grounded in his analysis of these recent elections, New York Times analyst Nate Silver argues that in the last three elections, Democrats have had a distinct Electoral College advantage (2012). While this advantage is not immutable, the fact that voting rules could skew elections toward one party for any sustained length of time is a serious flaw.

There is potential for even more unrepresentative outcomes if the selection of the president were to be thrown to the House of Representatives, as it would be in the event that no candidate won an Electoral College majority. This could occur either in the event of an Electoral College tie or in the event of a three-way division of electoral votes in which a third-party candidate won a substantial number of electoral votes. At that point, the U.S. House would pick the president by the indefensible formula of one-state, one-vote, and the House vote would almost certainly be based along party lines, no matter who had won the national popular vote (Richie 2012a).

A second problem with the winner-take-all rule affects every recent presidential election: the geographic gerrymander that leads presidential campaigns to focus all their resources on a handful of potentially competitive states while ignoring most Americans in election after election. …

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