The ups-and-downs of the Republican presidential primary campaign have made a lot of news lately, but not much has been written about a much smaller, yet equally important, campaign being waged this election year. It is called the National Popular Vote movement, and it aims to upend the very Constitutional system we use to elect our presidents.
It would do so by subverting the electoral college, which currently elects presidents to the outcome of the national popular vote. Already, states with 132 electoral votes have passed laws committing those votes to the winner of the national popular vote, and those laws will take effect as soon as they are adopted by enough states to equal 270 electoral votes – the number of votes needed to win the presidency.
We would still have the electoral college, but the electors would be bound to support the popular vote winner. It’s easy to understand why some people may be sympathetic with this plan; after all, why shouldn’t the president be elected by popular vote?
Well, there are several reasons.
First, deciding how we are going to elect our nation’s president outside of the national political process by trying to assemble a hodgepodge of state legislatures to tinker with our Constitution seems much more like an attempt at manipulating our federalist system than strengthening it. If the National Popular Vote succeeds, it would have the effect of amending the Constitution without having to withstand the scrutiny of a Constitutional amendment, which proponents know it wouldn’t survive.
The Constitution also says Congress must approve interstate agreements, meaning any agreement among the states on the allocation of electors without Congress’s approval would be vulnerable to a legal challenge.
Beyond National Popular Vote’s methods, its goal of electing presidents by popular vote could undermine our politics.
The electoral college forces candidates to campaign for states instead of individuals. This means that in the fall, when Barack Obama is running for re-election, he will have a much stronger incentive to try to win the votes of moderates and suburbanites in Virginia and North Carolina than to try to boost turnout in his hometown of Chicago. This prevents politicians from winning based on regional support and forces them to engage with a national electorate.
The process has a moderating impact on our politics, as the system pulls both parties towards the center and encourages voters to join with coalitions in advancing political objectives. A popular vote system would instead invite third-party candidates and factionalism, opening the possibility that a presidential candidate could win with just a plurality of the vote. Would it really be better to have a president elected with 35 percent of the vote against multiple candidates than elected through the electoral college with only 49 percent against one candidate?
The popular vote, on the other hand, would leave no distinction between a vote in New York and a vote in Indiana. It would naturally pull candidates to larger population centers. Instead of opening currently ignored red and blue states to a bustle of campaign activity, the popular vote would encourage campaigns to cater to the cities where they are already strong. Moderating influences would evaporate.
Instead, our politics would be broken into more factions, with more narrow interests in mind and, as a result, more extremism. Fringe candidates like Ron Paul and Ralph Nader stand little chance in our current system, although they can have a significant impact. But imagine a system in which countless other candidates like them could emerge, representing ever-smaller slices of the American public.
Finally, there is the issue of deciding the popular vote. America has never had a national election. We have had simultaneous elections in multiple states. Some of those states require voters to show identification at the polls, others don’t. Some states use voting machines at the polls, others use paper ballots. Some states require voters to be registered fourteen days before the election, others let voters register on election day. Which rules should we follow? Who decides which rules we should follow?
The American system of government is different. It is a work of genius designed for a country where power is dispersed between different branches of government at different levels of government. Having stood the test of time, there is no reason to alter it now.
Regardless of how well-meaning popular vote advocates may be, their prescription for American democracy fails to account for the many unintended consequences that could occur if we shake the foundations of the system that has produced all 44 U.S. presidents. Surely they weren’t all that bad.
Tray Smith is the special projects editor of The Crimson White.