Electing Presidents – Part III: The Popular Vote is Gaining Momentum

The League of Women Voters of the United States believes that the direct-popular-vote method for electing the President and Vice-President is essential to representative government. The League of Women Voters believes, therefore, that the Electoral College should be abolished. We support the use of the National Popular Vote Compact as one acceptable way to achieve the goal of the direct popular vote for election of the president until the abolition of the Electoral College is accomplished.  The League also supports uniform voting qualifications and procedures for presidential elections. The League supports changes in the presidential election system – from the candidate selection process to the general election. We support efforts to provide voters with sufficient information about candidates and their positions, public policy issues and the selection process itself. The League supports action to ensure that the media, political parties, candidates, and all levels of government achieve these goals and provide that information.

Statement of Position on Selection of the President, as Announced by National Board, January 1970, Revised March 1982, Updated June 2004 and Revised by the 2010 Convention

The previous posts in this series focused on changing the Electoral College. This one proposes abolishing it. The current system encourages presidential candidates and campaigns to focus on a handful of swing-states while ignoring the rest. Four out of five voters were ignored during the 2012 presidential contest.

This winner-take-all system has produced four presidents who lost the popular vote (1 out of 14 elections): John Q. Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), and George W. Bush (2000). In these instances, voters view the outcome as unfair and feel disenfranchised. Furthermore, the process loses credibility.

 A 2007 Washington Post poll revealed that a majority of Americans favor the popular vote (question 22)—Democrats 78%, Republicans 60%, and Independents 73%. More recently, it was reported that by a two-to-one margin Americans want the Electoral College eliminated.

The National Popular Vote (NPV) bill has been gaining traction for all the above reasons, and more. The League of Women Voters (LWV) conducted a NPV Compact Study in 2009 though this is different than the direct-popular-vote method they support. As of August 1, 2012, this bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions holding 132 electoral votes (VT, MD, WA, IL, NJ, DC, MA, CA, HI). The NPV bill preserves the Electoral College and states retain control of elections, therefore, 270 electoral votes are necessary in order to activate the NPV. How does this work?

All electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). Seems easy enough, yet the below arguments reveal the complexities of passing the NPV.

Opposing:

Supporting:

  • Eliminates the chance of electing a president who did not win the popular vote.
  • Candidates and campaigns will pay attention to all states.
  • Voters will feel their vote matters, likely increasing voter turnout as voters have a higher stake in elections.
  • The NPV does not require a constitutional amendment.
  • The political power of small states would be increased.
  • Attempts of voter suppression and election fraud would be diminished since the battleground states would have less influence.
  • Per the LWV, the NPV Compact is in “total harmony with both the terms and purpose of the Voting Rights Act.” (Other Issues, p.4)
  • Every vote is counted fairly and equally.

Clearly, there is movement toward the popular vote. The LWV reject reforming the Electoral College, particularly apportioning electoral votes based on the percentage of a state’s popular vote—the very solution proposed in my February 19 post—because of the increased chance that no candidate would receive a majority of electoral votes thus relinquishing the fate of the presidency to the House of Representatives.

That is a possibility. However, the three elections I analyzed met the 270-vote threshold. My assessments excluded third-party candidates, so I revisited the data and found that third-party candidates obtained anywhere from 0-3% of the popular vote in any state, so their influence was negligible on my results. However, this may not always be the case.

The way to ensure fair, representative elections is to abolish the Electoral College and implement the direct popular vote, as supported by the LWV. Whoever wins the majority of votes, wins the presidency. This may open up the process to the election of a third-party candidate, who currently stands little chance of winning against the two-party system.

The NPV may be a suitable alternative for now since it does not require a constitutional amendment, which abolishing the Electoral College most definitely would. However, the push for the direct popular vote should proceed because it would eliminate many of the arguments opposing implementation of the NPV.

Updated February 27, 2013: League of Women Voters Position on the National Popular Vote, submitted by FairVote.org