How to Fix Presidential Politics in Time for 2012

In 2000, the Electoral College put the wrong person in the White House. Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush took the presidency. In 2004, this came amazingly close to happening again. Bush had a clear edge in the popular vote, but a slight difference in the Ohio outcome would have made John Kerry president.

Ah, the Electoral College. Because a Constitutional amendment would be required to abolish it, and the low-population states would never agree, we are stuck with this anachronism, right?

No. The next president might be chosen solely on the basis of the popular vote, without Constitutional contretemps. This is closer to happening than you – and politicians – might guess.

A nonpartisan organization, National Popular Vote, has devised a clever end-run of the Electoral College. The Constitution specifies that each state controls the allocation of its electors. Suppose, the founders of National Popular Vote realized, states enacted laws promising to give their entire slates to the winner of the overall national popular vote.

Then whomever gets the most votes becomes president. A straight-up direct popular choice, the way governors, senators and representatives are chosen. No more putting the wrong person in the White House. No more national absurdities like the 2000 Florida recount-of-a-recount.

Just democracy.

Pie in the sky? The model legislation backed by National Popular Vote has already been passed by California, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts and other states representing 132 electoral votes. That’s half what a candidate needs to become president. The new laws contain a clause saying that if states representing 270 electoral votes (the victory number) commit to this plan, then the laws becoming binding – and the next president would be chosen solely by popular vote.

Momentum is building. The people’s-voice appeal of the idea is very strong. As 2012 arrives and the public learns that a true popular vote for the president is within reach, there should be grass-roots support. Any state legislators, or national party officials, who come out opposed to a national popular vote obviously will be trying to perverse a crony system controlled by insiders.

Consider how a true popular vote for the presidency would change the presidential campaign landscape. California, Texas and New York are America’s most populous states – yet in recent presidential elections, neither candidate spent much time in any of them. The “battleground states” got all the attention, because the quirks of the Electoral College downgrade some states while magnifying others.

In 2008, John McCain spent almost no time in California or New York, Barack Obama spent almost no time in Texas – both hit the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina over and over again. The Electoral College aspects of California, Texas, New York, New England, the Old South, the upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest states were already in the bag to one party or the other, so popular vote totals in those places – two-thirds of the country! – didn’t matter. Only Florida, Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina existed. On a good day, Missouri existed.

The battleground-state nonsense focuses way too much attention on a few places, while depriving much of the country of its due. Campaigning is distorted. Republican candidates don’t need to learn the concerns of liberals in California and New York; Democratic candidates don’t need to learn the concerns of conservatives in Texas and Arizona. Candidates stoke their party “base” for funds, then pander away in a few battleground states.

It’s a satire of campaigning — and gets worse every presidential election cycles as tools such as ZIP code voting analysis are refined. The unintended, pernicious impacts of the Electoral College just lead to more cynicism about politics.

This was not what the Framers had in mind when they designed the Electoral College. The Framers were nervous about direct election of presidents and of senators, believing many voters lacked access to information about current events. That was a big concern once, but not today. Direct election of senators did not come until 1913, via the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

Popular vote for the Senate has been the rule for a century – but the antiquated Electoral College still chooses the president. The National Popular Vote idea ends this anachronism without a minimum of travail.

Check the states that have enacted National Popular Vote bills and you’ll see they were all carried by Obama in 2008. This is not because the organization backing the idea is Democratic. Far from it: the deep pocket of National Popular Vote is populist conservative Tom Golisano, billionaire founder of a payroll-processing company. Golisano thinks politics is corrupt, and that unfiltered popular sentiment is the solution.

If the 2012 election were held today, a popular-vote regime would favor Obama, since two of the three largest states are Democratic. But party affiliations swing in cycles: just a generation ago, California was a Republican stronghold. Think about 2004 – in that election, a national popular vote standard would strongly have favored George W. Bush.

In the current presidential system, many votes don’t matter, and the leading candidate may not win. In a National Popular Vote system, every vote counts and political insiders cannot manipulate outcomes. What’s not to like?

[Cross-posted at Reuters.com]

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and the Atlantic. He's also a columnist for ESPN.com.