Obama-McCain contest: Should winner of popular vote always win the White House?

Gregory M. Lamb // Published September 3, 2008 in Christian Science Monitor

To John Koza’s way of thinking, the United States won’t be holding a true national election for president this November. And that’s made him eager to make a change: Revise the system to send the candidate with the most votes to the White House.

The problem is the Electoral College, which decides the election’s winner. Since electoral votes are tallied state by state, it turns out that the results from only about a quarter of the 50 states really matter. These so-called “battleground states” still have a chance to tilt toward one candidate or the other.

As a result, John McCain and Barack Obama will spend nearly all their time and money campaigning in these states. “Voters in three-quarters of the states [have been] ignored, meaning that the issues of concern to voters in three-quarters of the states [have been] ignored,” Mr. Koza says.

Making those neglected voters relevant is one of the chief reasons Koza founded the National Popular Vote initiative (nationalpopularvote.com) in 2006. But it’s not the only reason. Four times in US history – 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 – the candidate with the most popular votes did not win the White House because he had fewer votes in the Electoral College, which is based on the size of each state’s congressional delegation.

The National Popular Vote campaign encourages states to enact legislation that would give their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes nationwide, thus ensuring that the candidate with the most popular votes always wins the election.

Efforts to change or abolish the Electoral College are hardly new. Some 800 proposed amendments to get rid of it have been introduced in Congress since the early 19th century, says Alex Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard University. In the 1969-70, Congress nearly sent such legislation to President Nixon, who was ready to sign it; the amendment easily passed the House, but a filibuster by a handful of lawmakers in the Senate killed it.

Today, national and state polls consistently show about 70 percent of Americans favor direct election of the president.

The National Popular Vote drive differs in its tactics, though not its aims, from these previous efforts. Rather than a top-down strategy aimed at Congress, it seeks to enact change at the grass roots – state legislatures.

So far, four states – Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland – with 50 combined electoral votes have enacted bills that would give their electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote. Similar legislation has passed one or both houses in more than a dozen other states.

Once states with at least 270 combined electoral votes (the minimum needed for electing a president) enact legislation, the change would go into effect, since the winner in the Electoral College would also have to have a popular vote majority.

Koza, a computer scientist who co-invented the rub-off instant lottery ticket used by state lotteries, is a consulting professor at Stanford University. But the drive to secure a national popular vote takes most of his time.

A Constitutional ‘end run’
Because his organization is not seeking a constitutional amendment, opponents have charged that the effort is trying to sneak through a loophole.

“It’s basically an end run around the Constitution,” says Michael Hough, a spokesman for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of conservative state legislators that opposes the idea. “The appropriate way would be to actually amend the Constitution,” Mr. Hough says. “But they know that they can’t do that because they wouldn’t have the popular support, they wouldn’t be able to get it through [Congress].”

Scholars agree with Koza that the Constitution does give states power to decide how they choose to cast their electoral votes. Today’s winner-takes-all approach in each state was not mandated by the Founding Fathers, but evolved as a matter of political expediency in the mid-19th century. But Hough argues such an effort overrides important states’ rights. “It goes against the Founders’ intent,” he says.

“They came up with the Electoral College because they wanted states to have an important role in the elections.”

The Electoral College gives states with small populations a slightly bigger say than their number of potential voters, since every state starts with two electoral votes (just as every state has two senators). “By going to a national vote, you’re drastically changing the way we do elections in this country,” he says.

In 1979, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, considered one of the most erudite members of Congress at the time, called the idea of abolishing the Electoral College “the most radical transformation in our political system that has ever been considered.”

Close race anticipated
This fall’s election will give voters a fresh chance to see the current system – and, in Koza’s eyes, its flaws – in action. If the race is close, as is expected by many, the popular vote and Electoral College could once again yield different results.

Right now most of Koza’s support has come from Democrats, who still feel the sting from the 2000 election, in which Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote – and the White House. But the opposite nearly happened the next time out in 2004. President Bush easily won the popular vote by 3.5 million, but Democratic candidate John Kerry was only a miniscule 60,000 votes away from carrying Ohio and winning the Electoral College.

Koza says people put too much focus on just the 2000 race, although he concedes most of his support is from Democrats. But “We have Republican sponsors [of the bill] in most states,” he says. Former Republican Sens. David Durenberger of Minnesota and Jake Garn of Utah sit on the group’s advisory board.

Koza’s group is “doing a smart thing in undertaking this at the state legislative level, where getting an item on the agenda is a little bit more down-to-earth process,” says Gregory Magarian, an election law expert and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.

He hopes that the national popular vote effort will stimulate a discussion about the way Americans hold their presidential elections and whether they’re satisfied with the current system. “It’s a real, deep, important question about what the results of a presidential election are supposed to reflect” – the view of the electoral college or of individual voters.

Time to ‘get rid of it’
Professor Keyssar, who wrote a letter endorsing the National Popular Vote bill to the Massachusetts legislature, agrees that the movement could spark a valuable discussion, though he suspects that the American public eventually would want to pass a constitutional amendment too.

“I think most legislators and most citizens really think that the Electoral College is kind of dumb and would like to get rid of it,” he says.
Though no previous effort to elect the president by popular vote has succeeded, Koza remains hopeful. “I compare it to Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” he says. “When they got started everyone laughed at their proposals…. Then they went state by state, and now almost all the states have enacted their platform at least to some degree.”