Pretty Please?

There’s a creative, and perfectly legal, way to dispense with the Electoral College without amending the Constitution. Here’s how it was described recently by The New Yorker:

The Electoral College is enshrined in the Constitution itself, so getting rid of it would require the concurrence of two-thirds of both houses of Congress plus three-quarters of the state legislatures. That’s not going to happen.

But maybe it doesn’t have to. The promoters of the Campaign for a National Popular Vote, as they’re calling themselves, have come up with an elegant finesse. Instead of trying to change the Constitution, they propose to apply it, one bit in particular: Article II, Section 1, which instructs each state to “appoint” its Presidential electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” Here’s how the plan would work. One by one, legislature by legislature, state law by state law, individual states would pledge themselves to an interstate compact under which they would agree to award their electoral votes to the nationwide winner of the popular vote. The compact would take effect only when enough states had joined it to elect a President—that is, enough to cast a majority of the five hundred and thirty-eight electoral votes. (Theoretically, as few as eleven states could do the trick.) And then, presto! All of a sudden, the people of all fifty states plus the District of Columbia are empowered to elect their President the same way they elect their governors, mayors, senators, and congressmen. We still have the Electoral College, with its colorful eighteenth-century rituals, but it can no longer do any damage. It becomes a tourist attraction, like the British monarchy.

I am very much in favor of this plan. As a New Yorker, I am heartily sick of my state being neglected by both parties during the Presidential election cycle except as an ATM. Very few rallies, but a hell of a lot of fundraisers. I had to go to New Hampshire during the last election to see anything in the way of actual political effort being put into a state, and the difference was astounding. I was aware there was an election because I followed the news, but I never really felt it until I signed up for the last week of the Kerry campaign in Manchester.

Not to mention, the fact that New York has so little importance in Presidential campaigns diminishes its political importance overall, and further alienates people like me, who feel that nothing we do can have any national impact or influence while people in New Hampshire, Florida and Ohio are courted incessantly by politicians.

That’s why I want to make every Presidential campaign a national campaign.

24 comments for “Pretty Please?

  1. ks
    March 14, 2006 at 11:26 am

    But what about people who live in small states? Sure, New York, California, Texax, etc., will see lots of campaigning, but how about WV, North and South Dakota, Iowa? States with large populations (the coasts) will have their concerns addressed during the campaign, but the smaller middle states will then be out of luck. Not that I’m a huge fan of the electoral college, but I don’t know that a direct vote would be all that much better, at least as far as your concern over issues/campaigning goes.

  2. zuzu
    March 14, 2006 at 11:32 am

    I’d say Iowa has already had far more than its share of attention paid to its issues during campaigns.

    In a true national campaign, candidates would have to campaign in ALL states, because there are voters for each candidate in every state. And when you have a close race, every vote counts, so that you can’t write off small states — they may be make-or-break.

    In any event, it would be a vast improvement over the current system, where 10 or so states get all the focus and attention during the campaign and the other 40 get bupkis.

  3. Gabriel Malor
    March 14, 2006 at 11:34 am

    I can see why high-population states would like doing away with the electoral college. As you say, they’d get more attention. But the very point of many provisions of the US Constitution was to prevent the big states from pushing around the little states (obvious example: the Senate).

    While it may be true that a change would increase the time and expense candidates give to big states, it would mostly end campaigning in low-population states. There just wouldn’t be enough incentive to get politicians to make even one stop.

  4. Gabriel Malor
    March 14, 2006 at 11:35 am

    In a true national campaign, candidates would have to campaign in ALL states, because there are voters for each candidate in every state.

    That’s not the best use of their time. Now, instead of having to get states they only have to get voters, which mean they will go where the voters are and let TV ads do the rest.

  5. zuzu
    March 14, 2006 at 11:41 am

    Yes, but the current system of where the votes are is based on the winner-take-all system, so that safe states are ignored — without even TV ads aired in them — and all effort is concentrated on the very few swing states.

    The Electoral College was set up not to protect small states, mind you, but because the founders didn’t quite trust the unwashed masses. The Electors do not have to follow the will of the people, according to the way it’s set up.

    We’ve done just fine with direct election of Senators, why not President?

  6. March 14, 2006 at 11:54 am

    Thanks so much for this article zuzu! Im all for it. I think you would find that a lot of small states got a lot of attention – it’s all about who votes. I think it would also force a lot of politicians to become honest about their platforms and even talk about their views more often.
    While there may eventually have to be an overhaul that addresses inequities in the newly proposed system, I cannot think of a more arbitrary system then the one currently in place.
    That said, Diebold’s security would become a lot more of an issue (it should be anyway).
    Please let me know if theres anything I could do to help this along.

  7. jerseygirl
    March 14, 2006 at 11:59 am

    It’s not necessarily a high-population versus low population thing. The majority of the littlest states population-wise are not competitive at this time. Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Vermont… these are not places Presidential campaigns are spending a whole lot of their time. The voters there are just as marginalized as voters in Texas, California, and New York because you already know what most of them will do.

    Right now, Presidential campaigns spend most of their time and energy in Florida, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington and Missouri, with New Hampshire losing importance and New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada gaining. By 2008, Virginia will probably be in there as well. That includes 4 of the states in the top ten for electoral votes.

    You change the electoral college, and you’ll see Democrats running around in Austin, Texas and Boston, Mass and Republicans swinging through NW New Jersey and Kansas. None of those things happen now.

  8. March 14, 2006 at 12:35 pm

    You’re miffed because politicians don’t spend enough time *campaigning* in New York, so you want direct votes? I grew up in Rural, Indiana (yes, there is a town named Rural) and there were years that the only attention we got was when the candidates flew over the state.

    If you got what you want, there would be no running around at all. Just flights between NYC and LA with the rare stop in San Fran and Chicago. Everyone else would be ignored.

  9. March 14, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    Wow, more attention from politicians. There’s a selling point right up there with “now with more broken glass ground directly into your eyeballs!”

    Changes to the system would no doubt result in different applications of attention to different parts of the country. I’m not sure what the benefit of that would be. As jerseygirl notes, you’ll have Democrats coming to Austin and Boston. Which means that they’ll be spending less time in Miami and Cleveland. Which is good because…?

    This is a clever workaround to get past the EC, but one wonders what the majority of states would get out of it that would induce them to go to the trouble.

  10. zuzu
    March 14, 2006 at 1:03 pm

    If you got what you want, there would be no running around at all. Just flights between NYC and LA with the rare stop in San Fran and Chicago. Everyone else would be ignored.


    Because New YorkCity, LA, Chicago and SF have enough total votes to swing an entire national election.

    Here’s the thing: given the jockeying for position that takes place mid-cycle, the current state of affairs gives highly artificially inflated importance to a few swing states, both large and small, throughout the election cycle. Which means every two years. They get plied with pork and promises, and the rest of the states get diddly. If you force candidates to run in each state — like they already have to do for primaries, mind you — you lessen the importance of candidates from swing states, you are able to elect Democrats from Northeastern states because the votes of Southerners who *will* vote for a Northerner will count, and you force Washington to deal with national issues throughout the presidential term.

  11. Hestia
    March 14, 2006 at 2:02 pm

    Either way, campains will avoid some states. With the electoral college, it’s be the non-swing states; without the electoral college, it might be the small states.

    But wouldn’t it be nice if liberal Texans’ votes actually counted? Wouldn’t it be nice, if you were a conservative living in New York, to believe that you’re not just wasting time when you punch a presidential ballot? That’s why we should get rid of the electoral college, not the campaigning bit. If every single individual’s vote counted, regardles of where she’s living, then we’d have a political system much more in line with the political philosophy we keep espousing: government by, for, and of the people and all that.

    Of course, all this only really matters within a two-party system, so it still sucks. But it could suck slightly less.

  12. jerseygirl
    March 14, 2006 at 2:54 pm

    But Robert, they’ll still need Cleveland and Miami. But Cleveland and Miami’s importantance will no longer be outsized compared to San Francisco’s and Newark’s.

    With the system we have now, the Kerry campaign was still in Green Bay even though Milwaukee and Madison were the important base cities. They had to be to eke out their win in Wisconsin. I believe the same will hold true on a national level.

  13. March 14, 2006 at 2:57 pm

    Jerseygirl, there is no slack in a modern candidate’s campaign. More time spent in one place is less time spent in others.

  14. jerseygirl
    March 14, 2006 at 3:36 pm

    It’s not like I hadn’t considered that, Robert. What I’m saying is, why should Cleveland be more important than other cities on comparable size? What did they ever do other than fall within Ohio’s borders to make them more deserving of campaign resources, whether it’s staff, media money, or visits from the candidates and their surrogates?

    Maybe in a true national race, Cleveland won’t make the cut, but it probably will, and certainly not at the insanely ratcheted up level it’s at now. I think that would be appealing to the majority of the states. The rightwing activists would see it as their chance to make Republican candidates run to the right (which they can’t always risk in swing states), the large, urban liberal centers would have their chance for their votes to count proportionally to their size, and everyone who’s politics are at odds with their state’s majority will have their vote actually count. So what if the national strategists have to re-order what’s important?

  15. March 14, 2006 at 7:34 pm

    A point of order regarding the NYT article cited at the top …

    Excuse me, but the “reforms” listed in the last paragraph of the editorial are all actual Constitutional Amendments:

    Blacks the right to vote: 15th Amendment, 1870
    Women the right to vote: 19th Amendment, 1920
    Direct election of Senators: 17th Amendment, 1913

    So what’s the NYT’s point? If they are advocating “sidestepping” the Electoral College (as opposed to amending the Constitution to get rid of it), how is citing Constitutional Amendments going to validate their case? How is “sidestepping” the Electoral College in “this worthy tradition of making American democracy more democratic”? These “reforms” cites are great examples of the process of Constitutional Amendment itself … there’s no “sidestepping” at all.

  16. Tommy
    March 14, 2006 at 10:39 pm

    I like the idea, but there’s a few problems. First off, instead of trying to get a constitutional amendment, which was already stated as difficult to pass, you’d have to have all 50 states agree to this to make it work. That’s even tougher than the amendment, if not impossible altogether. By only enforcing the compact when the majority of the states come together you’re not necessarily going to win an election. (You would if all of those states were voting their electoral votes for the same candidate,but probably not if they were split votes.)

    Second, by going to a national vote instead of an electoral vote you’re not really changing the way that a politician will run their campaign. The way the electoral college works is that we vote for the electors who say who they’re going to vote for for the President. That voting usually follows the demographics of the state (R vs D). In some states, they are already running the popular vote meaning that whoever is the popular candidate in the state gets all the EC votes for that state. The bottom line comes down to this, whether they are competing for electoral votes or popular votes they are still going to plan their campaign for the swing states and they are not going to spend a lot of time in the states that are solidly theirs or the ones that are solidly for their opponent. The only major change you’d see is the rallies would shift from rural areas to only urban areas in an effort to get the message out to more people. You would also see more nationally televised campaigns since it’s the most effective way to reach people, regardless of geopolitical boundaries.
    Third, unless their is some provision to hold the electors responsible, then the new system is no better than the EC. Current electors are under no real obligation to cast their electoral votes for who they say they will. If the new system is no different, you could have a big problem, not to mention that holding them accountable with some sort of punishment (legal or otherwise) may conflict with their rights as defined by the constitution.

    Fourth, I think that an amendment may be easier to get passed and more effective in the long run. Amendments have been passed before, they just take a long time to get passed… literally years. This is just a quick fix answer to a problem that has become painfully clear in the last few presidential elections.

  17. KYguy
    March 15, 2006 at 8:16 am

    The way to fix this is not doing away with the electorial college, but rather to take congressional re-districting out of the hands of the individual state legislatures. The perceived stagnation of presidential politics is a direct result of the R and D policies to jerrymander districts for their encumbents. Such would destabilize many more states forcing the parties to actually campaign for both congressional AND presidential candidates. All that removing the electoral college accomplishes is giving big states (such as NY) even more voice than they already enjoy.

  18. zuzu
    March 15, 2006 at 11:01 am

    KYguy, New York doesn’t have much of a voice at all in national politics, certainly not compared to Iowa or Ohio. And given the relative populations, that’s really unfair.

  19. March 15, 2006 at 1:26 pm

    All the people saying small states would be ignored if there were a de facto national horse race are missing the same point: Despite what those pretty red and blue maps would have you believe, not everyone in each state votes the same way. If a candidate had to win a majority of votes cast nationwide, every 500-seat lecture hall would have equal weight regardless of the population of the state it’s in–or the state(s) the audience is drawn from.

    Right now it’s as pointless to go to Alaska, because it’s only going to be three electoral votes up or down when Pennsylvania glitters with 21, as it is to go to New York, where one Republican more or less isn’t going to wrest those 31 electoral votes from the Democrats. With a national race, one voter more or less could make a difference, and one more in Maine balances out one less in California.

  20. Gabriel Malor
    March 15, 2006 at 1:42 pm

    Hershele Ostropoler,

    While it is true that “every 500-seat lecture hall” would have the same weight, it is not true that every county, city, or state would have the same weight. Candidates in the proposed system would go where the voters are most concentrated in order to get the most votes for their time and money. That will be, generally, the coasts and urban areas. There would be little incentive to fly around the low-population states to every 500-seat lecture hall when they can just move from big city to big city where they can talk to thousands of people at once.

  21. March 15, 2006 at 4:03 pm

    In a popular vote system, candidates would optimize the time they spent evangelizing with two basic things in mind: the number of undecided (i.e., evangelizable) voters in a particular locale, and the time/money costs of visiting that locale. The time/money costs of a particularly locale would be effectively reduced or increased based on how many other locales containing evangelizable voters were in close proximity. (If I can hit ten community centers with 500 voters apiece in one day trip, that’s a better destination than a single isolated spot with 2500 voters.)

    So some places would probably still get bupkis as far as attention from candidates go. Why visit NYC when everyone there was going to vote for you anyway?

  22. zuzu
    March 15, 2006 at 4:10 pm

    Why visit NYC when everyone there was going to vote for you anyway?

    Because you might be able to persuade those who don’t vote to do so, and because your opponent will be out trying to do just that. Could be a several-hundred-thousand-vote pickup.

  23. March 15, 2006 at 4:25 pm

    Sure. But there are other cities where the are more undecided/evangelizable voters. NYC is so solidly Democratic that it isn’t going to get much attention from candidates under any electoral system.

    NY: 10 million voters. 70% are voting Democratic. 20% are voting Republican. 10% are undecided. A visit to NY is worth 1 million votes, potentially.

    Random City: 5 million voters. 30% are voting Democratic. 30% are voting Republican. 40% are undecided. A visit to Random City is worth 2 million votes, potentially.

    The rational candidate will ignore NY and go to Random City. The rational Democratic candidate will hit NY for funds, but still go to Random City for campaigning.

    In other words, it isn’t the electoral system causing you to be politically invisible; it’s the fact that you’ve already made up your minds. EC or direct majority, NYC is on the sidelines.

  24. zuzu
    March 15, 2006 at 4:29 pm

    Explain the last two mayors, then.

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