Obama-McCain contest: Should winner of popular vote always win the White House?
National Popular Vote initiative would change how states cast Electoral College votes.
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Scholars agree with Koza that the Constitution does give states power to decide how they choose to cast their electoral votes. Today’s winner-takes-all approach in each state was not mandated by the Founding Fathers, but evolved as a matter of political expediency in the mid-19th century. But Hough argues such an effort overrides important states’ rights. “It goes against the Founders’ intent,” he says.Skip to next paragraph
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“They came up with the Electoral College because they wanted states to have an important role in the elections.”
The Electoral College gives states with small populations a slightly bigger say than their number of potential voters, since every state starts with two electoral votes (just as every state has two senators). “By going to a national vote, you’re drastically changing the way we do elections in this country,” he says.
In 1979, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, considered one of the most erudite members of Congress at the time, called the idea of abolishing the Electoral College “the most radical transformation in our political system that has ever been considered.”
Close race anticipated
This fall’s election will give voters a fresh chance to see the current system – and, in Koza’s eyes, its flaws – in action. If the race is close, as is expected by many, the popular vote and Electoral College could once again yield different results.
Right now most of Koza’s support has come from Democrats, who still feel the sting from the 2000 election, in which Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote – and the White House. But the opposite nearly happened the next time out in 2004. President Bush easily won the popular vote by 3.5 million, but Democratic candidate John Kerry was only a miniscule 60,000 votes away from carrying Ohio and winning the Electoral College.
Koza says people put too much focus on just the 2000 race, although he concedes most of his support is from Democrats. But “We have Republican sponsors [of the bill] in most states,” he says. Former Republican Sens. David Durenberger of Minnesota and Jake Garn of Utah sit on the group’s advisory board.
Koza’s group is “doing a smart thing in undertaking this at the state legislative level, where getting an item on the agenda is a little bit more down-to-earth process,” says Gregory Magarian, an election law expert and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.
He hopes that the national popular vote effort will stimulate a discussion about the way Americans hold their presidential elections and whether they’re satisfied with the current system. “It’s a real, deep, important question about what the results of a presidential election are supposed to reflect” – the view of the electoral college or of individual voters.
Time to ‘get rid of it’
Professor Keyssar, who wrote a letter endorsing the National Popular Vote bill to the Massachusetts legislature, agrees that the movement could spark a valuable discussion, though he suspects that the American public eventually would want to pass a constitutional amendment too.
“I think most legislators and most citizens really think that the Electoral College is kind of dumb and would like to get rid of it,” he says.
Though no previous effort to elect the president by popular vote has succeeded, Koza remains hopeful. “I compare it to Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” he says. “When they got started everyone laughed at their proposals.... Then they went state by state, and now almost all the states have enacted their platform at least to some degree.”