America can be a strange place. Tuesday night, after learning that President Obama had won Ohio and thus (what a relief!) secured re-election, many of us went to sleep without knowing which candidate more Americans had voted for.
It turns out Obama won the popular vote too, averting a much-predicted electoral college/popular vote split. Some will argue that winning the popular vote as well as the electoral college gives Obama more of a mandate to govern—and it should. But this election—the latest to be fought out over a dozen counties rather than fifty states—should still offer an inspiration to fix how we pick our presidents.
Some argued in recent weeks that Obama wouldn’t score a “real” win if he secured the electoral college alone. But the real issue wasn’t the legitimacy of a victory—it was the integrity of our democracy. After all, this election was governed by the archaic rules we still use. Both campaigns knew this, and essentially wrote off efforts to win the popular vote for its own sake. A popular vote election would have been a very different election in all kinds of respects (consider the drop-off in Obama’s support in deep-blue states, which neither side had reason to care about).
(Facile comparisons to 2000 were inevitable, and of course that election also illustrated the inanity of the electoral college. But liberal rejection of that election’s legitimacy was based in other outrages: names expunged; voters intimidated; translators denied; recounts halted; malfunctioning machines.)
But what we do know is that every American would have had the chance to participate on an equal basis, in sharp contrast to our current system in which four out of five are absolutely ignored by both campaigns.
Electoral college defenders offer a range of arguments, from the openly anti-democratic (direct election equals mob rule), to the nostalgic (we’ve always done it this way), to the opportunistic (your little state will get ignored! More vote-counting means more controversies! The Electoral College protects hurricane victims!). But none of those arguments overcome this one: One person, one vote.
Our current system has a different pedigree: the “three-fifths compromise” between slave states and free states. As Yale constitutional law expert Akhil Amar has pointed out, James Madison wrote in his diary that the question of counting slaves posed a challenge “of a serious nature.… The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.”
The American electorate has been transformed since then. But not the Electoral College. In a 2000 editorial, we called our system “a drafty old house.” Perhaps we were being too generous.
As Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar observed, “It is hardly an accident that no other country in the world has imitated our Electoral College.” Imagine, for a moment, trying to convince constitution-writers in any newly democratic nation that there are more prudent alternatives to one person, one vote. Or proposing that California, which is large and diverse in its own right, assign votes to its various regions rather than to its citizens. Or suggesting that the US choose its president by tabulating who won the battleground age groups, or classes or religions.
So what can be done? Congress could get the ball rolling but, with Republicans holding the House, we shouldn’t hold our breath. Fortunately, we don’t have to. Thanks to Amar’s clever strategy and advocates’ savvy organizing, there’s an alternative, with momentum: state-by-state National Popular Vote (NPV).
The concept is simple: individual state legislatures pledge that they’ll assign all of their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote—conditional on enough other states following suit. Once a majority of the nation’s electoral votes rest in states that have passed NPV measures, the laws go into effect and winning the popular vote becomes the only way to win. This elegantly exploits one of the perversities of our current system—there’s no individual, federal right to have your ballot counted—and turns it against the system itself. It’s a state-based solution that could finally force a federal popular-vote election.
And it’s gaining steam. In fact, it’s almost halfway there. Nine states with 132 electoral votes have already passed NPV (that’s 49 percent of the necessary 270 electoral votes). While opponents claim that popular vote elections (read: democracy) would doom small states to irrelevance, some small states aren’t convinced. NPV supporters include not just California (fifty-five electoral votes), but states like Maryland (ten), Hawaii (four), and Vermont (three). After another election fought out over state like Ohio and Florida, it’s not hard to imagine why. In 2008, Ohio drew more campaign cash and visits than the smallest twenty-five states; this year’s stats will be even worse.
“Whether you pounded the pavement or picked up the phone,” Obama told the crowd late Tuesday night, “whether you held an Obama sign or a Romney sign, you made your voice heard and you made a difference.” It’s time to end the Electoral College, so those words can pack a greater punch.
Obama won the popular vote last night thanks to a diverse coaltion of citizens. Check out The Nation editors’ take on “A Progressive Surge” in this election.