Quick: When did we elect the President last year? If you said November 4th, you’re more than a month off. Try December 15th. That’s when the electoral college convened in each state to formally ‘elect’ Barack Obama president. Despite overturning the popular vote in 2000, efforts to establish direct election of the president– which would require amending the Constitution – have been unable to gain traction in Congress. Now two election reform organizations, relative newcomer National Popular Vote and the more established FairVote, have a promising proposal to use the electoral college for the very end it was intended to circumvent.
On April 28th, Washington became the fifth state in the nation to enact legislation in favor of a national popular vote for president. “Being a blue state since ’88, in the primary cycle we draw some attention, but in the general election we draw very little attention from the national campaigns,” says State Senator Joe McDermott, the prime sponsor of the bill in the Washington state Senate and a former elector himself. “National Popular Vote would blow that open. Whether the Democrat won by 52 or 57 percent would make a difference nationally. Assuming Washington was still a blue state, what the margin was suddenly becomes important.”
When it comes to how electors are awarded, all the Constitution has to say on the matter is that: “Each state shall appoint, in such a manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the state may be entitled in Congress.”
The plan for direct election of the president first advanced by National Popular Vote (NPV) is nothing short of ingenious: Instead of awarding electors by Congressional district (as both Maine and Nebraska do) or by state, states would award their electors to the winner of the popular vote in the country as a whole. This would only go into effect once states representing a majority of electoral votes had passed similar legislation. With Washington joining Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, and Hawaii, we’re about a quarter of the way to transforming the way we elect a president.