Keep the Electoral College, BUT ...
Fortunately, this year's presidential election winner was known and undisputed. The victor had both a decisive margin in the popular vote and the Electoral College. In addition, a refined campaign message and political environment hostile to the incumbent party managed to move swing states into one column while putting traditional safe states into play. It is possible that the map in presidential politics will continue to change, with candidates of both parties reaching out to new voters in new areas in new purple-ish states.
But this evolving electoral map does not stop the fact that an overwhelming number of voters, with much of them undecided, are effectively not in play. When pundits declare a state as "Safe Democrat" or "Safe Republican," there is very little incentive for either party to invest resources in that state. A good amount of phone banking in our state of New Jersey was probably for swaying voters in Ohio or Virginia, rather than to our neighbors within the Garden State. The folks driving to the voting stations in the final hour before Alaskan polls closed last Tuesday night were heading for an already decided election, and certainly many of them turned around, reducing participation in Alaska's other elections like its close Senate election.
Without repeating too much about what's been said negatively about the Electoral College system, I recommend keeping it. That's right. I am asking for the preservation of an institution that makes constitutional monarchies seem progressive.
Amending the U.S. Constitution is a long and difficult process, and putting presidential elections in federal control to have a national vote could potentially trek into the territory of state's rights. In addition, an Amendment requires the cooperation of 38 states, in addition to two-thirds of Congress. But there is a method in which we can have a popular election for president, yet respect the deformed Constitutional brainchild of the Founding Fathers.
The Constitution was created as compromise between those who wanted elections of the president and those mistrusted the masses to make a wise decision. (I personally won't get into the argument whether the Constitution drafters were the power-hungry bourgeois or whether the typical 1789 voters were genuinely retarded.) They gave the power to the 13 states and trusted their legislatures to decide how they selected the electors who subsequently voted for the president.
By the eve of the Civil War, every state but one selected their presidential electors through a quasi-democratic vote. It took less than a century after the ratification of the Constitution for the states to delegate to the voters the decision of who is selected to participate in the Electoral College. Of course, since the Civil War, voting rights were reevaluated with the 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments.
Why the history lesson? It is because the Founding Fathers designed the Electoral College system, not the winner-take-all system. If a popular vote were to be instituted, it would not necessarily require constitutional amending. All we need is a law passed in as little as a handful of state legislatures. The law says that once the same law is passed in states totaling at least 270 electoral votes, the states would certify the appointment of the national popular winner's slate of electors, even when the national winner did not get a plurality within the states that signed up. This turns the 51 separate election races into one national race.
This is the best proposal to reform the winner-take-all system used by 48 of the 50 states. I take pride in the fact that New Jersey has already signed up for this plan along with Maryland, Hawaii, and Illinois. Currently, that is 50 of the 270 Electoral votes needed for a popular election of the president and vice president.
Other proposals to "reform" electoral laws, such as having individual congressional districts select its elector, or apportioning the electors proportionately to the state's vote are really just blatant schemes by states' minority parties to decrease the electoral advantage of the opposing party nationally. This idea is worse than the current system. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact remains as the only state legislation that directly benefits the national interest rather than the interest of either party.
This compact will not alter the process in which the two parties select their presidential nominees. The compact will not resolve the issue of occasional faithless electors. Those are separate issues. The claim that a national election means candidates would only campaign in population-dense urban areas remains dubious when you look at how Bush, Gore, Kerry, McCain and Obama campaigned within alleged "swing" states. Those candidates chased undecideds wherever they were, whether they were in the city, the suburbs or the rural areas.
The only compelling argument against the compact remains the scenario where a virtual tie nationally leads to massive litigation in all fifty states for both parties to fish out results. But statistically, we're much more likely to have Florida 2000-like situation again in a single deciding state with the winner-take-all system than a national nightmare with a popular vote.
The compact can possibly move quickly enough, so we could have a national popular election for president by 2012. Just as the Constitution presently intends it, reform would come through the actions of state legislatures instead of a federal power-grab. Presidential elections can be decided once again by voters discussing their decisions with their next-door neighbors rather than annoying voters in a faraway swing state. With the 2008 election recently behind us and the 2012 election not materializing yet, it remains ambiguous which party would benefit more from a popular vote in four years. Now is the perfect time to get Republicans and Democrats to work together in legislatures across the country to get the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact into effect.
Roger Sheng is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. His column, "The Echo Chamber," runs on alternate Mondays.