On November 3rd, all eyes were on the United States presidential election between incumbent Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat and former Vice President Joe Biden. An unprecedented turnout coupled with extraordinary circumstances made this year’s election season particularly interesting. Despite Biden polling high, sometimes leading by double-digit percentage points, those who voted for him were wary. In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had a similar lead in the polls that did not translate to a presidential win. Despite winning the popular vote, she lost the electoral vote and therefore the presidential race, which echoed the 2000 presidential election in which Democrat Al Gore also lost the election despite winning the popular vote. While now President-elect Biden eventually won both the popular vote and the electoral college, the possibility of the presidency remaining with Trump for another term without the popular vote sparked fresh debates about abolishing the Electoral College.
The Electoral College has been a mainstay of national elections since the birth of the United States, conceived as a compromise during the 1787 Constitutional Convention for choosing the president. The Founding-era argument for the Electoral College was grounded in the idea that ordinary Americans across the new nation would not have the necessary information to intelligently choose a president through a popular vote. While this objection may have rung true in the 18th century, the emergence of national parties rendered the argument obsolete through the linkage of presidential hopefuls to slates of local candidates and national platforms that explain and signal policy and personal stances to voters.
The Electoral College comprises 537 electors and electoral votes are allocated to states based on their population, updated once a decade with the U.S. Census. The number of representatives they have in the U.S. House, with two more electoral votes allocated for each of the two senators from every state. This leads to disparity in voting power, as votes in less populous states carry more weight than those from more populous states. For example, each elector in the most populous state of California represents 3.18 times as many people as each elector in Wyoming, the least populous state. This means that each vote in California has exponentially less power in comparison to one cast in Wyoming because the plurality winner in a state is granted all its electoral votes in a winter-takes-all system. There are a few exceptions to this rule in that two states, Nebraska and Maine, award a single electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district and their remaining two electoral votes to the statewide winner.
While abolishing the Electoral College is unlikely, there may be another way to reform it. Since the Constitution does not mandate a set legislative process for selecting electors and instead gives state legislatures the power to choose how to allocate their states’ electors, states have opted for a number of allocation methods throughout the years. On the evening of the presidential election, Colorado became the latest state to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). The NPVIC is an agreement that would allocate the electoral votes from its member states to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote. Once states whose electoral votes add up to or exceed 270 agree to the compact, winning the popular vote would secure the presidency for that particular candidate. The compact would alter the way participating states implement Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution, which asks for each state legislature to define a method to appoint its electors to the Electoral College.
Some of the largest states in terms of population, such as California and New York, have already signed on. The compact currently stands at 196 electoral votes, with 60 currently pending, and will be activated when it reaches the 270 electoral vote threshold. Some have deemed the NPVIC unconstitutional because it promotes coordination among states and consequently creates a direct popular election, something the framers deliberately wanted to avoid when they detailed electoral procedures in Article II. The NPVIC makes an unauthorized fundamental alteration to the Electoral College and would force a state’s electors to vote for whoever secured a plurality in the national popular vote, irrespective of the candidate’s performance in their state.
However, proponents of the compact argue that a true democracy puts power into the hands of its people and that change is especially needed when the election system has yielded different results from the popular vote in two of the past six presidential elections. Because abolishing the Electoral College is incredibly difficult to achieve, the NPVIC was created to be this change. The compact provides an adequate solution to an issue that has grown increasingly significant as the country has evolved. The core of the NPVIC was created on the basis that each vote is equal to any other and its implementation would bring back democracy to our presidential election process.
Categories: Domestic Affairs