Make Electoral College reflect overall popular vote

// Published April 21, 2008 in Nashville Tennessean
Our View

Amid the controversy over superdelegates, mudslinging and too-early primaries in this presidential campaign, another controversy is quietly brewing: Electoral College or national popular vote?

While there will not be a change in the 2008 presidential election, the national popular vote movement is gaining favor, according to public-opinion polls.

For those who remember only too well the disputed 2000 election, and who see tightening contests between Democrats and Republicans in new "battleground" states, the debate could represent a big shift for America.

Currently, the president is chosen not by millions of registered voters but by 538 "electors," a system established under Article II and the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Each state gets electors equal to its number of U.S. House members plus one for each of its two U.S. senators; the District of Columbia gets three electors. Electors are usually chosen by political party committees within each state, and each casts one vote. Whichever candidate gets a simple majority, 270, of the electoral votes wins the presidency, regardless of who received the most popular votes. This is because the candidate who receives the most popular votes in an individual state typically is awarded all of that state's electoral votes; thus, the votes cast in that state for the other candidate do not count toward the outcome.

Four times, in 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000, one candidate won the most national popular vote but lost the election. In 2000, Al Gore received over a half-million popular votes more than George W. Bush, but Bush received 271 electoral votes.

Technically, it would be possible for a candidate to win as few as 11 elector-rich states and be elected president. This fact in particular has helped fuel the national popular vote movement. Because a small number of states have become decisive, candidates have no incentive to campaign in two-thirds of the states; in effect, disenfranchising much of the electorate. According to, in the 2004 campaign, candidates concentrated more than 66 percent of money and visits in just five states.

Founding Fathers rightly cautious

There was once a good reason for the Electoral College. The Founding Fathers feared that in direct popular elections, uninformed voters would choose only candidates from their own region, leading to chaotic election challenges.

But time has passed by this tenet of the usually timeless Constitution. The U.S. now has a strong party system and modern communication is such that presidential nominees are known nationwide.

There is no practical reason for the Electoral College, but national popular vote advocates realize that a push to amend the Constitution would take years and face strong resistance. They propose instead to get states possessing at least 270 total electoral votes to ban the winner-take-all rule, which is not mentioned in the Constitution. The votes of Electoral College members from those states would be apportioned to reflect popular votes cast.

Three states, possessing 46 total electoral votes, have enacted the law so far, and the bill has been introduced by legislators in 47 states. In Tennessee, it was introduced in the 2007 session, but then withdrawn.

The plan deserves a close look. With the fears of the founders a thing of the past, all Americans should see their votes count.