Friends all over the place are talking about how and where to support civic engagement with their time and money. The ACLU tops the list for many of my friends–as well as for a whole lot a friends I didn’t know I had. There’s good reason today to support The Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, The Sierra Club, The Council on American-Islamic Relations–all places to devote your efforts if you are interested in preserving civil society during the Time of Troubles. I’ll be giving loved ones memberships to these for Christmas.
And there’s at least one more that deserves your support, even though the issue it covers–electoral reform–may seem like small potatoes compared to the threats we are facing. FairVote.org has been doing the quiet, patient work of improving the way elections work in the United States since 1992. And, among the many forward-thinking reforms that they have advocated, one of the most timely is the reform of the Electoral College.
Democrats have ample incentive to support Electoral College reform: Democrats have won the most votes in four of the last five presidential elections, yet we’ve had a Democratic president for only two of those electoral cycles. One can be forgiven for believing that, along with persistent gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics, the Republicans have used the Electoral College to hold on to power despite being a minority party in the United States.
Yet, the Republicans have just as many reasons to support the reform of the Electoral College. Yes, over two recent cycles (2000 and 2016) the Electoral College has favored the Republicans, but there’s no structural reason that this should be so. Indeed, some of you remember the scenario (and personal fantasy of mine) that in 2004 John Kerry would win the Electoral College in spite of losing the national popular vote. If I remember correctly, he came within 70,000 votes of winning Ohio (and hence the election) that way.
I had hoped in part that the election would swing that way in 2004 because I believed (and still believe) that if the Republicans had suffered the same kind of defeat that the Democrats had in 2000, there would be a bipartisan consensus to do away with the Electoral College.
But for better and worse (mostly for better), it will be extremely difficult to do away with the Electoral College entirely. Doing so would require an amendment to the Constitution, and that’s a pretty high bar to clear: the last amendment to the Constitution(the 27th) occurred nearly 25 years ago, 202 years after if had been proposed in 1789.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some way to reform the Electoral College without having to amend the Constitution? It turns out that there is such a way. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has just the kind of wonky name that puts people to sleep. However, it’s one of the most fundamental advances we could make to our presidential election system today. And we can make it law without having to amend the Constitution.
Here’s how it works. The Constitution is helpfully vague about how states choose who their electors will be:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress…
In other words, individual state legislatures have wide latitude to decide how electors are appointed. And, if a state legislature decides that electors should be appointed on the basis of whoever wins the national popular vote, there’s nothing in the Constitution to forbid it.
Yet, what would be the incentive for a state to give up its influence over the electoral process by choosing its electors that way? That’s a good question, and certainly swing states like Ohio and Florida have little incentive (beyond an interest in democracy) to do so. Those states receive millions of dollars in ad revenue from the presidential campaigns every four years–they have a much greater stake in the status quo. However, the so-called “safe states” like California, New York, and Oklahoma–states which are reliably red or blue in every election–have less influence over presidential elections today than they would have if they simply banded together and agreed to choose electors on the basis of the national popular vote.
And that’s what the compact aims to do. As soon as enough states agree to appoint their electors that way–that is, as soon as states representing 270 electoral votes agree to it–the compact would go into force.
I’ll write more later about the benefits of such a plan, as well as about its constitutionality. But for now, check out the map of states which have already voted to implement the compact. Check out the states where the compact has almost passed–that is, where the compact has a reasonable chance of passing in the future. Check out how many times it took some of the states to pass the compact into law.
One of the beauties of this kind of work is that it is a concrete step for the public good that can be accomplished in state houses, where individual voters can bring more pressure to bear. Friends in Oregon, friends in Colorado, friends in Oklahoma and Tennessee: find out what your state legislator is doing to support this compact–which is to say, find out what your legislator is doing to support democracy in the United States. FairVote.org can help hook you up with this project.