By Bob Katzen
While on the stump in her presidential campaign last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) made headlines and reignited a debate that has been brewing across the nation for years. Warren wants to abolish the Electoral College, the current system under which the president and vice president are not actually elected directly by the voters but rather by “electors” who are elected by popular vote from each state. There are 538 electors with each state assigned a number of electoral votes equal to the number of its members of Congress. The District of Columbia has three electoral votes. Electors are chosen by political parties and pledge to vote for the winner of the state’s popular vote.
Warren was on the stump in Mississippi last week and promoted the abolishment of the Electoral College. “You know come a general election, presidential candidates don’t come to places like Mississippi,” said Warren. “They also don’t come to places like California and Massachusetts, because we’re not the battleground states. But my view is that every vote matters. And the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting.”
Every four years there is talk about abolishing the Electoral College and electing the president based on the national popular vote. This talk intensified after the 2000 election in which Al Gore (50,999,897 votes) won 543,895 more popular votes than George W. Bush (50,456,002 votes) but was beaten by Bush in the Electoral College by a 271 to 266 margin. The debate was re-ignited when Hillary Clinton (65,853,514 votes) won more popular votes than President Donald Trump (62,984,828 votes) but lost to Trump in the Electoral College by a 304 to 227 margin.
Eventually, though, the debate settles down and the system stays the same. One of the key reasons for the reluctance to change is that abolishing the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment that is either proposed by two-thirds of each house of Congress or by a constitutional convention that would be called if 34 states requested it. In both cases, the proposed amendment would then have to be ratified by 38 states in order to become part of the Constitution. Both of these avenues are difficult, at best.
Along comes Fair Vote, a group with the goal of electing the president by popular vote without actually abolishing the Electoral College. It establishes an agreement among the states to elect the president by national popular vote. The agreement would require states that join the pact to cast all of their electoral votes for the presidential candidate who wins a majority of the national popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The pact would go into effect when states representing at least 270 electoral votes — a majority of the 538-vote Electoral College — join the pact. It is a clever end run around the Constitution by taking advantage of a part of the document that supporters say gives the states exclusive and complete power to determine how to allocate their electoral votes. The pact would likely be challenged in the courts if it ever takes effect.
The National Popular Vote plan has bipartisan support and, according to Fair Vote’s website, the plan has been introduced in all 50 state legislatures. It has been signed into law in the District of Columbia and 12 states possessing 181 electoral votes — 67 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to activate the legislation. The states include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Washington State and Vermont. The Massachusetts House 114-35 and the Senate 28-9 approved the measure in July 2010 and it was signed into law in August by former Gov. Deval Patrick.
Supporters say the Electoral College is an antiquated system that is inherently undemocratic and gives voters in states with a large number of electoral votes more voting power than those in other states. They argue the system was designed by the framers because they did not trust the common citizen to vote correctly. They note that presidential candidates now concentrate on, and campaign in, a handful of swing states while ignoring most of the states that are already solidly Democratic or Republican.
Some opponents say that the Electoral College is a good system that has worked well and should not be changed. They argue it actually gives voters in smaller states power that they would not have if the president was elected strictly by a popular vote system in which candidates would concentrate on states with larger populations. Some have argued that electing the president by popular vote would give wealthy fringe and third-party candidates a chance at success by focusing their efforts in a few major urban centers. Others suggest that changing from the Electoral College to a popular vote system is a very serious issue that needs more study.
(A “Yes” vote is for the law making Massachusetts a member of the popular vote pact. A “No” vote is against the law.)
Rep. Christine Barber Not yet elected Rep. Mike Connolly Not yet elected Rep. Denise Provost Yes Sen. Patricia Jehlen Yes