Somewhere, Samuel J. Tilden may be smiling. The 1876 Democratic presidential nominee -- who won the popular vote but lost the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes -- would surely approve of the movement afoot to entrust the American people with the direct election of their president. Though the outcome is far from certain, increasingly energized reformers have the Electoral College in their crosshairs.
John Koza, a Stanford professor, is the brains behind the National Popular Vote campaign, a bipartisan organization promoting an innovative way to reform the Electoral College system that would elect the president, essentially, by a national popular vote.
Koza's big problem with the Electoral College isn't just the rare election when the incoming president has lost the popular vote. He's concerned that under the current system, presidential candidates play a game of nationwide hopscotch, paying attention only to the handful of states that could swing the election and ignoring the rest. This effectively disenfranchises the residents of the two-thirds of the country whose states vote solidly red or blue. “Ninety-nine percent of the money and 92 percent of the visits go into just 16 states,” Koza said.
And more may be on the way out. According to National Popular Vote, in the last 45 years, the number of electoral votes considered up for grabs has halved, dwindling from 327 electoral votes (of the 538 total) in 1960 to merely 159 today. “That hardening of the political artery has reduced the number of states that are getting close,” said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, an electoral reform organization closely aligned with Koza's group. “More states are moving out of play than into play.”
The interests of those few voters that determine the election get pandered to with the best American politicians can muster. After watching the last presidential race, a foreigner would be forgiven for thinking America was brimming with ethanol, yet most states don't produce a drop. But Iowa, a small swing state, does.
Academics, pundits, and reformers have fought fiercely over the Electoral College for years. Still, no matter the drawbacks of the current system, reform has been elusive. Eliminating the Electoral College by amending the Constitution is currently politically improbable: A constitutional amendment would require enactment by two-thirds of Congress followed by ratification by three-quarters of the states. On top of congressional inertia, no self-respecting swing state would ratify an amendment that would throw away its electoral meal ticket; similarly, small states are fond of the body because it gives them proportionally more influence, though reformers like Koza and Richie argue that non-battleground small states would benefit from a national popular vote. (In 1989, the House of Representatives did overwhelmingly pass a bill abolishing the college, 338-70; the measure stalled in the Senate, 13 votes short.)
That's where Koza comes in. His National Popular Vote proposal sidesteps the need for an amendment by exploiting a loophole in the Constitution that allows each state to assign its electoral votes however it sees fit. This means that, in principal, any state may legally give all its electoral votes to the candidate who can bench press the most weight or earn first place in a pie-eating contest rather than the candidate who gets the most statewide votes. Picking up Koza's idea, a growing coalition of reformers proposes that states make an agreement, known as an interstate compact, which would assign all of a state's electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The compact would kick in only when states representing a majority of Electoral College votes have signed on, meaning that the candidate who won the popular vote would be guaranteed the majority of electoral votes, and thus the election. The president would still be elected by the Electoral College, but that body would cease to matter. (Koza, the man who invented the scratch-off lottery ticket, thought up the idea after discovering interstate compacts through his work with interstate lottery commissions, like Powerball.)
Will such a reform work? Several state legislatures have taken the proposal seriously. The bill has received attention in the Missouri, Louisiana, New York, and Illinois state assemblies; it was recently passed in the Colorado state senate; and after going through both chambers of the California state legislature, is awaiting decision by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has until September 30 to act on it. Koza hopes to have bills filed in all 50 states for the 2007 legislative session. (Legislators in Vermont and Arizona recently announced their intent to sponsor the bill in 2007.) “A year from now we'll know a lot more about the potential rapidity of this,” said Richie. “But there's a lot of room for optimism.”
The campaign has been getting particular attention, not surprisingly, from legislatures in non-swing states. The state legislators supporting the bill have a variety of motives. For some, their states would gain political capital were presidential candidates forced to run a nationwide campaign. Tom Umberg, a California Democrat from Orange County, heads the election committee in the state assembly. After being approached by Koza, Umberg shepherded the bill through the legislature and on to the governor's desk. He wants candidates to work California voters, not just California donors. “California is largely irrelevant in the presidential election,” Umberg said. “[Koza's proposal] would make the non-battleground states relevant once again.”
Some Republicans, as well as Democrats, from non-swing states are also excited about Koza's proposal, largely for the same reasons. Kirk W. Dillard, state senator from Illinois and chairman of the DuPage County GOP, said he signed on because non-swing states have been neglected for too long. “I'd like to see the presidential candidates and have them meet our folks,” he said. “They should have the opportunity to hear [the candidates], just like those who live in Florida.” Dillard also stressed the bipartisan appeal of the national popular vote. With an earnest drawl, he noted that the bill, which is still in committee, was co-sponsored by Democratic State Senator Jacqueline Collins, “an African American representing an urban district, [while] I am a caucasian representing a rural district.” Five Republican New York Assembly members introduced the bill in late May.
Representatives from the national parties are more skeptical. Stacie Paxton, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, said that it was too early to comment on whether the DNC would support the proposal. Josh Holmes, deputy press secretary for the Republican National Committee, also refused to comment on “process generalities.” The national parties might be slow to sign on because it is unclear which party, if either, would gain from a national popular vote, a point on which Koza is inclined to agree. “Anybody who claims to know [which party would benefit] doesn't know what they're talking about,” he said. “It would be a totally different ballgame.”
To date, eight state legislatures are considering the proposal. That leaves 42 more to go for the National Popular Vote movement to reach its goal of nationwide coverage by January 2007. After that comes the hard part -- getting the bills passed. Electoral College opponent George C. Edwards III, author of Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America, has called achieving this goal “a long shot.”
Still, The New York Times and Los Angles Times have written enthusiastic endorsements of the interstate compact plan. And the public seems to agree. In the wake of the 2000 election, more than 60 percent of Americans wanted the Electoral College abolished, according to a Gallup poll taken shortly before the 2004 election, and strong disapproval of the body likely remains. “If you talk to people on the street about democracy and elections, there's a gut sense that there's something not right about the Electoral College,” Richie said. If reformers can tap into that gut feeling and mobilize popular support, the presidential election could soon turn into an actual popularity contest. It can't help Tilden -- or another such candidate named Gore -- but it can make national elections national again.
Brendan Mackie and Ben Weyl are former American Prospect interns.