Elections Revive Electoral College Debate
Indiana Writers Group column for Nov. 21 and thereafter
By Andrea Neal
The quadrennial debate over the Electoral College is back. Last month, a Pennsylvania House committee heard a bill that would change the way that state votes for president. If the bill became law, Pennsylvania would require its Electoral College delegates to vote for the candidate who wins the majority of the national popular vote, no matter how Pennsylvanians voted. If enough states did the same, we’d essentially get rid of the Electoral College without amending the Constitution.
National Popular Vote, an organization created last year to push this concept, says it’s gaining steam around the country. More than 350 state legislators have signed on as bill sponsors in 47 states. Another 391 have cast a recorded vote in favor of the legislation in committee or on the floor of a legislative chamber. Former Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh, who introduced a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College way back in 1970, is one of the proposal’s key supporters.
Yet, so far, Maryland is the only state to enact the measure. It’s been passed by lawmakers in both California and Hawaii, but vetoed by their governors. In Indiana, Reps. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, and Dale Grubb, D-Covington, introduced a National Popular Vote bill last year, but never got a hearing. With the upcoming session a short one, they’re not likely to push the idea too hard in 2008.
Says Pierce, “I am hoping that perhaps if we don’t have a vote on the bill that we could at least have a hearing in the House Elections Committee to kind of talk about the Electoral College and some of the issues involved in these various proposals that are out there for modifying the way we elect the president. I don’t know if that’s going to be viable in a short session with so many other major issues going on.”
After the 2000 presidential election, when Al Gore won the popular vote but not the Electoral College, demand grew for a constitutional amendment to replace the Electoral College with direct election.
As Birch Bayh’s experience proves, amending the Constitution has been nearly impossible.
Under the system established by the Framers in 1787, each state gets a number of electors equal to the number of its U.S. Senators (two) plus the number of its U.S. Representatives (nine in Indiana). The electors cast votes in early December for president and vice president. In 48 of 50 states, it’s winner-take-all. Thus in 2004, George Bush got all 11 of Indiana’s Electoral College votes. A candidate needs a majority of Electoral College votes to win the presidency.
The National Popular Vote idea is essentially an end-run around the Constitution. Participating states would enter into a compact and agree to pledge their electors in the Electoral College to the presidential candidate who receives the majority of the national popular vote. The compact would take effect when passed by enough states to possess a majority of the electoral votes (270 of 538). The minimum number of states needed would be 11.
Supporters say this would force presidential campaigns to appeal to all the country. “Under the winner-take-all rule, candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the concerns of voters of states that they cannot possibly win or lose,” says National Popular Vote. “This means that voters in two thirds of the states are effectively disenfranchised in presidential elections because candidates concentrate their attention on a small handful of ‘battleground’ states. In 2004, candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their money and campaign visits to win votes in just five states.”
John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute in Washington D.C., was among those who spoke against the bill at the hearing before the Pennsylvania House Intergovernmental Affairs Committee. Using a complicated formula, he has concluded that only 20 states would gain influence from moving to direct election (Surprisingly, one is Indiana.) The rest would lose influence. This explains why a constitutional amendment has never gone far. Three-fourths of states must consent to it.
In opinion polls, a majority of citizens say they want to replace the Electoral College with popular election. But competing principles are at stake here. Should the presidential election be nationalized or should states play a role? And should 11 states have the power to force change on the rest of the country?
Andrea Neal, a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis, is adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.