After 2016, Popular Vote Becomes a Democratic-Primary Issue

A proposal approved in 14 states and D.C. would keep the Electoral College intact but reward the popular-vote winner.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren on March 8 in the Queens borough of New York
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
April 23, 2019, 8 p.m.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is giving Democratic presidential contenders who hope to channel the grassroots frustration with the Electoral College a relatively more realistic proposal to tout.

With the past two Republican presidents winning their first elections despite losing the popular vote, a push to change how we elect presidents has already cropped up in the race to take on President Trump, who received nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016.

More than a dozen contenders for the Democratic nomination have said they are at least open to eliminating the Electoral College, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose remarks last month made headlines across the country and on cable TV.

“Every vote matters, and the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting, and that means get rid of the Electoral College,” Warren said in a CNN-hosted town hall in Jackson, Mississippi.

But Warren followed that up a couple of weeks later by noting that there is a campaign in place to accomplish the end goal without having to pass a constitutional amendment, which has little chance of happening in both a polarized Congress and electorate.

The interstate compact, which is making its way through the Nevada state legislature, among others, would keep the Electoral College intact but guarantee a state’s electoral votes to whoever receives the most votes nationally—not within that state. Since 2006, 15 jurisdictions totaling 189 electoral votes have passed the legislation, which would kick in once it’s approved by states totaling at least 270 electoral votes.

According to The Washington Post, 13 candidates are open to eliminating or have explicitly called for eliminating the Electoral College. Only three declared candidates have said they would keep it.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg began teasing the idea of moving to a popular-vote model while exploring a presidential run and has since made it a focus of his campaign.

“We can’t say it’s much of a democracy when twice in my lifetime, the Electoral College has overruled the American people. Why should our vote in Indiana count just once or twice a century? Or your vote in Wyoming or New York?” Buttigieg said at his kickoff rally this month. “So let’s make it easier to register and to vote; let’s make our districts fairer, our courts less political, our structures more inclusive; and yes let’s pick our president by counting up all the ballots and giving it to the woman or man who got the most votes.”

John Koza, the originator of the interstate-compact legislation, said the Democratic candidates share his goal of having the president elected by the popular vote but see the issue through a different lens. When most of the candidates think about an Electoral College overhaul, Koza said they think about it through the framework of a constitutional amendment because most of the candidates serve in Congress.

“What we’ve argued is that the flaw isn’t particularly in the Electoral College, which is in the Constitution for historic reasons,” Koza said. “It’s these state winner-take-all laws that, for one thing, have let 5 out of 45 presidents come into office without having led in the national popular vote.”

That, Koza argued, “narrows the presidential campaign down to just a handful of states” deemed competitive by both parties, meaning the remainder can be ignored.

National Popular Vote Inc., describes the compact on its website as “a constitutionally conservative, state-based approach that preserves the Electoral College, state control of elections, and the power of the states to control how the President is elected.” But it’s having trouble getting through Republican-controlled states.

The 14 states that have joined the compact, along with Washington, D.C., all went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, though it’s passed single chambers in other states that backed Trump. Between March 15 and April 3, the Democratic governors in Colorado, Delaware, and New Mexico all signed the bill into law.

Koza acknowledged the politicization of the compact, despite National Popular Vote Inc.’s nonpartisan stance. So did Rob Richie, president and CEO of FairVote.

“One of the frustrations of the National Popular Vote cause is it’s not a partisan one in its origins and its motivations. ... As early as the '90s, it was equally supported by Republicans and Democrats,” said Richie, noting the compact wasn’t “inspired by the 2000 election.”

Still, efforts are underway in the Democratic Party to eliminate the Electoral College. Sen. Brian Schatz recently introduced an amendment, cosponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is running for president, that “would provide for the direct election of the President and Vice President of the United States by a popular vote among voters in each state, territory, and the District of Columbia.”

Richie cautioned that altering the Constitution essentially makes the change permanent, adding that there is barely any language in the Constitution on elections in the first place.

“If you’re going to put something in the Constitution,” Richie said, “you better make darn sure that you’re getting it right, or create enough flexibility within it that we kind of adapt to changing conditions.”

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