Michigan Electoral College "Reform" and the National Popular Vote

by Claire Daviss, Rob Richie // Published December 2, 2014

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Today the Michigan Committee on Elections and Ethics met for the second time to hear testimony on a bill that would change the way that Michigan distributes its electoral votes. HB 5974, submitted by Rep. Pete Lund, would change Michigan’s system of distributing electoral votes from a winner-take-all system to new formula designed to reward political activity by the two leading candidates – and in so doing as stirred a hornets’ nest of opposition.

FairVote provided written testimony for the hearing today, bringing new analysis to this important discussion. We raise several key points in assessing Michigan HB 5974.

FairVote agrees with Rep. Lund on the fact that the current winner-take-all system, used in Michigan and 47 other states, is problematic. As detailed in a FairVote-authored article in Presidential Studies Quarterly last year, more than two-thirds of states now are sure to be completely ignored by the presidential campaigns after the conventions. Michigan voters received at least some attention in 2008 and 2012, but a good bit less than warranted by their share of the national electorate. It’s been 26 years since a Republican presidential nominee last carried Michigan. Another easy win for Democrats in 2016 will likely seal Michigan’s status as a spectator state until the system is reformed.

Although FairVote agrees that the current winner-take-all system is problematic, HB 5974 has problems as well. (You can read a full description of the bill’s methodology in our testimony and at this link.) If Michigan alone passes legislation to change the way that it distributes its electoral votes, it will at most have four electoral votes in play and more likely only two. At least eight other states would have more electoral votes in play and be more attractive targets for campaigns. There are limited scenarios in which Michigan’s system would make a difference, but even those are problematic, as we detail here:

Despite this fact, there are scenarios where HB 5974 could make Michigan a “tipping point state” in 2016. For instance, if you sum the electoral votes in the 19 states that Democrats have won six straight times, Democrats start a close presidential election with a relatively strong base of 242 electoral votes. If you add Florida’s 29 electoral votes to that total, it grows to a winning majority of 271 electoral votes. If Democrats also won New Hampshire for the fourth straight time, they would have 275 electoral votes.

But suppose HB 5974 were law and the Republican nominee were able to win 47.1% of the two-party vote in Michigan, under H.B. 5874 the Republican would win six electoral votes – and suddenly go from losing the presidency by 12 electoral votes to earning a 269-269 electoral vote tie and having the Republican-run House of Representatives pick the president. Although the odds of this scenario or a similar scenario involving more states are low, they are plausible if the 2016 presidential election were nationally very close.

We also created a spreadsheet to analyze the impact of all states using the HB 5974 system. We simulated the 2012 results if the bill had been used in every state and District of Columbia. Nearly half of states would not have a single electoral vote in play, including 14 of the 15 smallest population states.

Moreover, the bill results in a lack of symmetry in comparable popular vote outcomes. For example, Obama’s 52% to 48% win in the 2012 two-party vote would have translated into an electoral vote win of 287 to 251. If Romney had won 52% to 48%, he would have secured a far larger winning electoral vote margin of 315 to 223. 

When FairVote simulated a national popular vote tie, Romney would have won the electoral vote by 271 to 267, suggesting that this system would have likely allowed Romney to win even if he had lost the popular vote by a small margin. The formula in HB 5974 therefore has the potential to produce a “wrong way winner” in presidential elections.

We conclude our testimony by explaining how the best proposal for Michigan – and indeed all states -- is the National Popular Vote interstate compact that has been adopted by 10 states and the District of Columbia. Designed to guarantee election of the candidate who wins the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC, the National Popular Vote avoids the problems present in the current winner-take-all system and in the proposed formula in Michigan HB 5974. It ensures that every vote in every state matters equally and that all states get the attention they deserve.