Pamela M. Prah
// Published June 9, 2008
was the presidential primary calendar that state legislatures across
the country upended to give their voters a greater say this year in
choosing candidates. Now a few states are orchestrating an overhaul of
the way voters select the U.S. president.
this fall will still use the Electoral College to determine the next
occupant of the White House, but a movement is bubbling at the state
level to bypass the process and instead ensure future presidents are
the candidates who get the most votes nationwide — an outcome not
always guaranteed under the current system.
last year became the first state to approve a “national popular vote”
compact that would allocate all of its 10 electoral votes to the
candidate who wins the most votes nationwide, rather than to the
candidate who garners the most votes in the state, as is the case under
the Electoral College.
Jersey, Hawaii and Illinois have since followed suit and passed laws
that would allot their collective 40 electoral votes the same way.
Identical bills are moving in Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina
and Rhode Island, which have a total of 62 electoral votes.
bills do nothing on their own and would take effect only when states
that collectively have at least 270 electoral votes pass identical
measures, since a candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the
who remember their history classes know that American voters don’t
directly elect a president — states do through “electors” who typically
vote for the candidate who drew the most votes in their state.
are all the other elections in this country based on the popular vote
except for the most important one, the presidency?” asks Barry F.
Fadem, president of the National Popular Vote, a group based in
California that aims to persuade state legislatures to implement a
nationwide popular election of the president. He called today’s system
“flat-out, wrong” and expressed optimism that enough states will pass
the legislation in time for the 2012 presidential election.
Popular Vote was launched in 2006 and is largely founded by its
chairman, John R. Koza, a scientist best known for inventing the
rub-off instant lottery ticket used by state lotteries and his work in
genetic programming at Stanford University. In the 1980s, he and Fadem,
an attorney, were active in promoting adoption of lotteries in the
and his supporters say that such a system would make every vote matter,
not just those in “battleground states,” while critics argue that the
approach is an end-run around the U.S. Constitution and wouldn’t
necessarily be more fair than today’s arrangement.
Samples, director of Cato’s Center for Representative Government in
Washington, D.C., called the National Popular Vote campaign a “novel
gimmick” that he said is “asking for a mess” if enacted.
to reform or abolish the Electoral College were common after the 2000
presidential election, when former Vice President Al Gore won the
popular vote, but didn't have enough votes in the right states to carry
the electoral vote over Republican George W. Bush. While Bush won the
popular vote in 2004, he could have lost the election if John Kerry (D)
had won Ohio.
the hand-wringing over what many call an obsolete election system,
little has happened, largely because dumping the Electoral College
means changing the U.S. Constitution, an arduous task that requires
two-thirds approval of Congress and three-fourths of the states. The
National Popular Vote would keep the Electoral College, but change the
way electoral votes are awarded.
way Fadem sees it, a national popular vote would generate the same kind
of excitement and enthusiasm seen in the recent primaries because all
states — and their voters — would matter.
the current system, candidates have no reason to poll, visit,
advertise, organize, or pay attention to the concerns of states where
they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind, Fadem said. For example,
presidential nominees have long ignored California because the state is
considered a solid “blue” state that will award its 55 electoral votes
to the Democratic candidate.
Gregg II, director of the McConnell Center at the University of
Louisville in Kentucky and a fan of the Electoral College, agrees that
the National Popular Vote would change the way candidates campaign, but
not in a good way. Candidates would go where most of the votes are,
namely cities. “Rural areas would never see a presidential candidate.
Small states would never see a presidential candidate,” he said.
also predicted chaos if there were a close election and candidates
challenged the vote count. “You would have the  Florida recount
replayed across the country … It would be a very ugly situation.”
some supporters of using the popular vote to elect the president have
problems with the National Popular Vote’s campaign. “They are trying to
circumvent the U.S. Constitution,” said Burdett Loomis, a professor of
the political science at the University of Kansas, who advocates
changing the system but by having Congress and the states debate the
issue and amend the U.S. Constitution.
says his group is not thumbing its nose at the Constitution since
states still would have their right to decide how to allocate their
also reject critics’ characterization that backers of the National
Popular Vote are Democrats who are bitter about the 2000 elections.
not a partisan issue. This isn’t about electing a Democrat president,
but electing a president democratically,” said Jamie Raskin, a
Democratic state senator in Maryland, reiterating what he said when he
introduced the National Popular Vote plan that was signed into law by
Gov. Martin O'Malley last April. Raskin, a professor of constitutional
law at American University in Washington, D.C, spoke to Stateline.org from Massachusetts, where he was discussing the measure with state lawmakers there.
three Republican governors vetoed the bill when it landed on their
desks. In his veto message, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said,
“It disregards the will of a majority of Californians," pointing out
that the state's electoral votes under the new system could be awarded
to a candidate most Californians didn't vote for. Hawaii Gov. Linda
Lingle voiced the same concern when she vetoed the bill twice, but this
year, lawmakers overrode her objection. Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas last
month rejected the measure, saying it would decrease the influence of
small states, like Vermont.
Samples said he wonders if voters who support the concept of a popular
vote really understand how it would operate. “Do people in Maryland
know under the National Popular Voter system, that their vote may go to
someone who didn’t win their state?”
despite the concerns of the National Popular Vote approach, even their
critics give the group kudos for bringing the issue to the attention of
voters and elected officials. “They are doing a service … We ought to
be talking about this,” said Loomis of the University of Kansas.