Two years from now, we will have just elected a new president. We know the election date: Nov. 8, 2016. What we don’t know is just how our votes will count. Under the Constitution, states decide how to allocate Electoral College votes — and there are rumblings of change.
One thing is clear: Americans rightly see the current system is failing. In any election decided by fewer than a million votes, it’s a coin flip as to whether the popular-vote winner will become president. Just as troubling, today’s politically polarized voting patterns ensure that campaigns will devote all their resources to voters in a handful of the usual swing states — think Ohio, Virginia and Florida. More than 2 in 3 Americans live in spectator states where their votes can be dismissed as irrelevant.
Fortunately, our framers gave our state legislators the tools to fix presidential elections. State laws govern how states allocate electors, with states making many changes going back to the founders’ generation. Today, legislators focus on two basic reform approaches: One to join with other states to guarantee election of the national popular vote winner, and the other to act on their own to replace the winner-take-all rule for allocating electors.
We prefer the National Popular Vote plan. It would put every voter on equal footing by ensuring that the winner of the most popular votes in all 50 states always earns a majority of electoral votes and, as a result, the White House. Coming in the form of a binding interstate agreement, the plan is activated only after being adopted by states that collectively represent a majority of the Electoral College. At that point, all participating states will award their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The plan is 61 percent of the way to activation, having been passed into law in 10 states and the District of Columbia. States still have time to act in 2015 to effect change by 2016, or at least keep momentum going to win by 2020.
Pennsylvania and Michigan lead the list of states that might act on their own. Despite near-battleground status, both states have been won by Democratic presidential candidates for a quarter century, frustrating many of the Republicans who run state government. Pennsylvania’s state Senate Majority Leader Domenic Pileggi proposed allocating electoral votes by congressional district in 2011, and now has legislation to allocate his state’s 20 electoral votes semi-proportionally — meaning that a 52 percent to 48 percent outcome would result in 11 electoral votes for the winner and nine for the loser.
Michigan leaders have focused on congressional district allocation, with delegates at the GOP’s state convention in 2013 voting 1,370 to 132 to back that change. Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, recently forecast action on the proposal later this year.
But these proposals to divide electoral votes within states are highly problematic. The first problem is that they inevitably draw charges of partisan conspiracy. If used nationally in 2012, the congressional district plan would have comfortably elected Mitt Romney despite Barack Obama’s win by nearly 5 million popular votes. Romney also would have won electoral vote majorities in five of the states that he lost, including Michigan and Pennsylvania.
But more importantly, the plans simply aren’t good policy. Few congressional districts would be in play, keeping most voters as spectators. When examined closely, the proportional plan also would maintain most voters’ irrelevance, including those in nearly every small state and every large state — with the perverse impact of creating a new class of swing states likely to be a small number of mid-sized states.
The current leadership in Pennsylvania and Michigan have the power to pass their proposed changes. Both states will have lame-duck sessions after November. If they want to act on their frustrations with the current Electoral College system, we urge them to back the National Popular Vote plan, the one truly nonpartisan reform that treats all Americans equally and guarantees that our next president will have won the most votes in all 50 states.
Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote, FairVote.org, a nonpartisan electoral reform think tank based in Maryland. Claire Daviss is a FairVote democracy fellow.