For the Promotion and Advancement of Republican Democracy

Why we need a new system for presidential elections.

I’m an Oregonian, so a claim that Oregonians are not as important or special as residents of Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin, seems offensive and demeaning. Most Oregonians would object to and challenge such a pronouncement. But every four years that is the message sent during the presidential election. Due to the Electoral College, states like Oregon, and many others, are ignored during presidential campaigns and our votes mean almost nothing. As Scott Walker, a candidate in the republican primary race said in an interview with CNBC in 2015, “The nation as a whole is not going to elect the next president. Twelve states are.” However, it doesn’t have to be this way. A simple solution would be to enact the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. It’s a mouthful, but the idea is a simple one. Before we get into that, however, let’s look at where we are now and how we got here.

The Electoral College was established by the framers of the Constitution as a compromise while deciding how to elect a president. At the time, we were creating a whole new system with no historical examples to follow, and we were a nation devoid of the technologies and communication capabilities we now enjoy. What was settled on was a system by which each state was allotted a number of electors equal to their number of senators (always 2) plus their number of congressmen (based on population). These electors were meant to be the voters for president, and base their decisions on their own judgement and deliberations. When citizens were voting, it was for electors, not their choice of president.

The College removes the agency of individual voters. In all other elections in this country, the voters directly elect their representatives. Our presidential elections, however, are different. When you cast a vote for a presidential candidate you are not directly voting for that person. You are registering your preference for a candidate, which is then tallied along with all the other ballots in your state. Those votes are then assigned to the candidate who gets the plurality of votes in the state and all your states’ electors vote for that person. In 48 out of 50 states, the electoral votes are all cast for just one candidate. There is no proportional allocation of citizen’s votes.  For example, if there were two candidates and one got 1000 votes, the other got 999 votes, and your state is allotted ten electors, all ten electors would vote for the candidate with the 1000 votes. One candidate would not get six electors while the other gets four (except for Maine and Nebraska, which do proportionally distribute their electors). This system creates swing states (aka battleground states) and it means we can, and have had, presidents elected even though they did not receive the most votes nationwide.

This is one of the main faults in our system. A candidate can be elected to the highest office in our country, with the slimmest margin in just a few states, despite a large national popular vote loss. This is the exact situation encountered in 2016. According to the FEC’s 2016 Official General Election Results, Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton by 2,868,691 votes, out of 128,838,341. That’s a 2.09% margin of victory for Clinton. Trump became president, nonetheless, because 77,744 voters, out of 13,233,376, between the states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin cast their votes for him. That was his margin of victory in those three states; less than .6%. Those states combined carry 46 electors, giving Trump the advantage he needed to win in the Electoral College.

This leads to the question of: what are our votes worth? In places like Oregon, California, Texas, Kentucky, or New York, the answer is that they have a nominal effect on the election outcome. These states are reliably red or blue. Therefore, not only do candidates tend to ignore the state, if you are a member of the opposition party in one of these places, say a republican in Oregon or a democrat in Texas, your vote carries nearly zero weight. It alone (or in combination with the small majority who are with you) cannot alter the balance of the total votes in your state. All your states electors will go to the candidate with the most votes, essentially negating your ballot.

Additionally, candidates don’t visit many places. They concentrate in battleground or swing states, the areas where electors are up for grabs. FairVote.org has compiled some surprising statistics about where the candidates spent their time in 2016. The two major party tickets made 399 official, public campaign appearances after the conventions. Of those, 375 were spent in just twelve states. Fourteen states only received between one and three visits each, and a whopping twenty-five states (including Oregon) received zero visits! The statistics indicate that 76% of the country is not on the radar of presidential candidates.

So, what can we do about this situation? The only way to abolish the Electoral College and move to a direct vote system is with a Constitutional amendment. It is an extremely difficult and long process to get an amendment passed and is very unlikely to be successful. Luckily, a much simpler and doable solution has come along. It’s called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The idea is simple: States that join (by passing a bill in their legislatures) agree to commit all their electoral votes to whomever wins the national popular vote. The compact would go into effect once enough states sign-on to reach 270 electoral votes, the number needed to win the election. This would ensure a national popular vote winner could never lose in the electoral college. No constitutional amendment would be necessary, and it’s legal because states are autonomous in making decisions about the allotment of their electors. The compact has been proposed in all fifty states and been enacted into law in eleven, totaling 165 electoral votes so far. It has also seen momentum in several other states.

In Oregon, the bill has passed the House four times. In three of those cases it never even received a hearing in the senate, and during this last legislative session (2017) a version of the bill made it to a hearing in the Senate Rules Committee, but never made it out of committee. According to The Oregonian, the bill was not advanced because the version proposed in the senate calls for the issue to be taken up by voters in a ballot initiative. The House version did not. The two bills would need to be reconciled and the Senate Rules Chair did not believe it made sense at that time to try such a task. The advocates for the bill do not have the funds and resources available to run the financially and labor-intensive campaign needed for a ballot measure vote. It’s been noted that the previous three House bills passed were all “blocked by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who opposes abandoning the traditional Electoral College process.” This year, however, he said he “would support the change if Oregon voters—not their representatives in Salem—made the call.”

This brings us to opposition to changing our current system. There are, of course, going to be many people who oppose any change to the status quo, and their reasons will vary. One popular argument is that the electoral college prevents “mob” rule; that it protects the minority from being overpowered by the majority. I think this argument is unconvincing due to the nature of how our system has ultimately come to operate. Under its original intentions, the College would have acted as a deliberative body. The electors would be chosen by the citizens, and would decide the presidential elections on their behalf. The Framers believed this compromise solved many problems they were facing, one being a concern about mob rule. The Founding Fathers did not want the common folk to hold too much power over the process. They felt the electors were better equipped to make such monumental decisions, and their will could prevent the “mob” of citizenry from choosing a less-than-desirable candidate. However, the Framers did not anticipate the rise of political parties (or “factions”), but factions took hold soon after the ratification of the Constitution. The electors were voting along “party lines” almost from the beginning. According to the political scientists Edwards and Wattenberg in their book Government in America, “the idea of electors exercising independent judgments is a constitutional anachronism.” It doesn’t seem plausible, therefore, that the College prevents mob rule. Every Vote Equal has this to say about the concern:

 The American people currently cast votes for President in 100% of the states…In case anyone thinks it is appropriate to characterize the American electorate as a “mob” it is long-settled that the “mob” already rules in American presidential elections…[It’s] not whether the “mob” will vote for President, but whether the “mobs” in battleground states  should be more important than the “mobs” in the remaining states.

Additionally, almost all other presidential countries in the world elect their presidents directly; this is not a new, untested concept.

Another concern that comes up a lot is the notion that the electoral college is protecting smaller or more rural states from being ignored by the candidates and drown out by bigger states. It seems the current system is doing little to bring candidates to smaller or more rural states. What it does do, however, is makes a few select states more important than all others, simply because of their undecided status. Those states come in various sizes and have diversified demographics, as do the many states currently ignored. If battleground states didn’t exist, we would likely see changes in how candidates conduct their campaigns. Although we can’t know exactly what that would look like, even Trump has claimed that if the winner were based on popular votes he would have “campaigned differently.” Perhaps we Oregonians would have the same chance to interact with the candidates that Floridians do.

If the National Popular Vote were to go into effect, all citizens could be secure in the knowledge that their vote counts. Whether you’re a republican or a democrat, whether you live in Oregon or Ohio, your vote would have just as much power as everybody else’s. People could have faith in our democratic institutions, and that might boost voter participation. In fact, Silberstein claims that “turnout is about 11% higher in battleground states.” Evidence exists that corroborates this assertion, and although correlation doesn’t guarantee causation, it is promising.

The Electoral College is undermining democracy in America and adversely affecting voters. The National Popular Vote is a great solution to this issue. It is straight-forward, Constitutional, and fair. Civic participation can be rewarding and satisfying, but we need to ensure that each vote counts. Supporting this legislation is an easy way to bolster democratic ideals and equality. To find out more, you can visit nationalpopularvote.com. If you’d like to express your support for the legislation, please look up your state rep and senator (if you don’t already know them) (at oregonlegislature.gov if you’re an Oregonian), and give their office a call to encourage them to vote for this measure.

One person, one vote.