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April 11, 2008

Will States End the Electoral College?

posted by Josh Goodman

Could the interstate compact to use the national popular vote in presidential elections actually have a chance? The proposal received a boost this week when Illinois became the third state to approve it, joining Maryland and New Jersey.

For those who are unfamiliar, here's the plan: States agree that their electoral votes will go to the winner of the national popular vote, but only once enough states have entered into the arrangement to give the popular vote winner at least 270 electoral votes and the presidency.

All told, the compact has won approval in 16 legislative chambers. That's pretty impressive for an idea that just got started a couple of years ago.

Here's the thing, though: Every legislative chamber that has approved the plan possesses a Democratic majority. The three governors who have signed it, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Martin O'Malley of Maryland and Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, are all Democrats.

There's nothing inherently partisan about selecting the president through the popular vote. In fact, as I've argued before, if the plan went into effect it would represent a triumph for state ingenuity and authority. States would be fundamentally altering the selection process for the head of the federal government, without the approval of a single federal official.

But, while Republicans love to stick it to the federal government, they also tend to be resistant to challenging America's political traditions. Equally importantly, Democrats are motivated to support the plan in part due to the memory of the 2000 presidential election.

Surprisingly enough, that partisan divide doesn't doom the compact. In time for 2012, Democrats have a chance to win complete control of enough state governments to pass the plan without the help of Republicans.

Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey combine for 46 electoral votes. Democrats hold complete control (the governorship and majorities in both houses of the legislature) in 11 other states and the District of Columbia. (Those states include Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia.) Add it all up and we're at 134 electoral votes.

Where could the other 136 electoral votes come from? California, with 55 electoral votes, has a Democratic legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is term-limited in 2010. Democrats will control New York (31 electoral votes) if they can win two seats in the state senate. New total: 220.

Hawaii, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont all have Republican governors, but Democratic legislatures that are at or near veto-proof majorities. In fact, this year the Hawaii legislature seems likely to override an expected veto of the plan from Gov. Linda Lingle. Those four states have 18 electoral votes, getting the total to 238.

If Democrats net one seat in the Tennessee Senate, three seats in the Wisconsin Assembly and two seats in the Michigan Senate (which isn't up for reelection until 2010), that gets you all the way to 276, above the magic number.

There are other routes to get there too, involving Virginia, Montana, Delaware, Minnesota and Alabama. Even Pennsylvania and Ohio could come into play.

Now that I've played that exciting game of addition, several cautionary notes are in order.

Any of the Democratic takeovers listed above is plausible in its own right. However, it's highly unlikely they will all happen, especially when you consider that Democrats picked the low-hanging legislative seats in 2006 and when you consider that the party also couldn't lose any of their governorships or legislative chambers in these states. Plus, I haven't taken into account the reapportionment of Electoral College votes that will occur after the 2010 Census.

Even more importantly, just because all the legislative chambers that have approved the plan have a Democratic majority, that doesn't mean that all legislative chambers with Democratic majorities will approve the plan. The Electoral College gives disproportionate influence to swing states -- including Michigan, Wisconsin, Colorado, New Mexico and New Hampshire -- influence lawmakers of both parties might be loathe to give up.

But that doesn't doom the compact either. In fact, it would probably only take a single, simple event for the plan to gain the support it needs: John McCain wins the popular vote, but loses the Electoral College.

Comments

Daniel Ong

Colorado, even with Democratic control of both houses and the governorship, won't go for the National Popular Vote compact. I've forgotten the details, but Colorado voters rejected something related at the ballot box (I think it was an initiative to allocate Electoral College votes by winner in each congressional district), so Colorado politicians are unlikely to try to pass something similar against the voters' wishes.

Jim Riley

Colorado specifies the manner of appointing electors in its constitution, which can not be amended without ratification by the people.

While it could be argued that under the US Constitution that the method of appointing presidential electors can be made by ordinary legislation, Democrats might not be willing to push through a bill that says that they bypassed the People in order that the People could directly elect the President.

Josh Goodman

Daniel, your memory is correct. Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected a plan to award electoral votes by congressional district in 2004.
For what it's worth, the supporters of the national popular vote compact argue that their plan is superior to a system based on congressional districts: http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/pages/faqitem.php?f=8 . However, my impression is that one reason Colorado rejected the congressional district idea is that both Democrats and Republicans held out hope that their candidate would carry the state and therefore win all of its electoral votes(Bush ended up winning Colorado by 5%). Likewise, Colorado's place on the swing state list creates a disincentive for the state to go to the national popular vote.

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