“I think I made a mistake by coming here.” A gentle-looking woman had flagged me down in the hall and was standing next to me, an earnest look on her face. We’d just left a state legislative hearing in Connecticut. She’d come to show her support for the so-called National Popular Vote (NPV) bill.
That legislation would effectively get rid of the Electoral College, if approved by a critical mass of states. I was there to testify against NPV. Now this honest woman wanted me to know: She’d started the day as an Electoral College opponent, but she’d discovered she has more to learn before taking sides.
I never got that woman’s name, but I think of her often. She is representative of many who support NPV. They believe that the Electoral College is indefensible in a modern, democratic-minded society. They’d like to get rid of it, and they assume that NPV will do the trick.
A little education reveals that the situation is far more complicated than that.
But what is NPV? National Popular Vote is a California-based effort that has been pending for years. Its proponents hope to use a simple interstate compact (a contract) to change the presidential election system. Each signatory state would agree to award its electors to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of the outcome within its own borders. The contract goes into effect when states holding 270 electors sign. To date, 11 states plus D.C. (172 electors) are on board.
NPV would achieve its desired outcome—a national popular vote for President—without recourse to the more difficult constitutional amendment process.
A little education reveals many potential problems with NPV’s proposal.
First, NPV’s proposed contract is unstable. Anything from changed Census numbers to indecisive states could cause the country to pop in and out of NPV’s plan. Worse, this indecisiveness could hit in the midst of an election. Do we really think that states will calmly remain signatories to NPV’s contract, even when elections turn out differently than anticipated? Would California calmly award its 55 electors to Donald Trump in 2020, just because of NPV? California would be more likely to pull out of the contract, citing state sovereignty, and to award its electors to the Democratic candidate. The matter would undoubtedly end up in court.
Second, NPV would cause differences among state election laws to become problematic in a way that they aren’t today. Consider the issue of early voting: Today, no one cares if Colorado polls are open for fewer days than those in a state like Ohio. After all, a vote cast in Ohio cannot change the identity of a Colorado elector. Votes cast in Ohio determine only the identity of Ohio’s electors. NPV turns this system on its head: Now a vote in Ohio can change the identity of a Colorado elector. What happens when Coloradans are disenfranchised because they got less time to vote than those in other states? Hint: It will probably involve a lawsuit.
This is just the tip of the iceberg on the legal chaos that will ensue if NPV is enacted. Please take time to learn more here.
The Electoral College is often maligned, but it is a positive (if misunderstood) force in our political system: It encourages coalition-building and penalizes those who rely upon isolated pockets of support in one region, one state, or among voters in one special interest group. It encourages moderation and compromise. Importantly, the state-by-state election process isolates voting problems to one or a handful of states, making it harder to steal elections.
If this is true, then what has been happening lately? No one seems very interested in reaching out to voters and building diverse coalitions, as the Electoral College has historically required.
Fortunately, a little education provides an answer to that, too. We’ve been here before. The country has been divided and angry. We’ve had series of close presidential elections in which it seemed that coalition-building was a thing of the past. In the years after the Civil War, the Electoral College proved its ability to heal just this sort of division. In those years, Democrats could not win the White House unless they won at least one northern (red) state. Meanwhile, Republicans couldn’t win the presidency if they lost even a single one of these states. Both sides had reason to reach a hand across the political aisle. Over time, the country came to a healthier place.
The incentives today are the same. The first party to realize its mistakes and to once again focus on coalition-building will also begin winning presidential elections in landslides. Eliminating the Electoral College now will simply undermine our ability to heal.
NPV’s legislation is currently pending in states such as Colorado, Minnesota, and New Mexico. Many will be tempted to throw hasty support behind the plan. More helpful is the open-minded willingness to learn that I encountered in a Connecticut hallway.
Tara Ross is a mother, wife, writer, and retired lawyer as well as the author of “The Indispensable Electoral College: How the Founders’ Plan Saves Our Country from Mob Rule.”