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Making the Electoral College More Democratic

Oct 10, 2011

The way we choose a President is undemocratic. The Electoral College gives each state a number of electoral votes equal to the number of its senators and representatives. With one house seat, South Dakota gets three electoral votes. Next year, Texas will get 38. Most states allocate their electoral votes on a “winner take all” basis. Whichever candidate receives the largest percentage of popular votes in a state wins one hundred percent of the state’s electoral votes. 

I like this system just fine. It gives a lot more clout to less populous states and regions, like the one I live in. Without South Dakota, Bush loses in 2000. Without the Electoral College, Presidential candidates ignore South Dakota. Yes, it’s undemocratic, but so are the United States Senate, the Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court. It put George W. Bush in the White House though more people voted for Al Gore. John Kerry nearly did the same to Bush four years later. 

It has at least one serious disadvantage. In a close election, the outcome can ride on a fraction of a percent of the popular vote in a key state like Florida or Ohio. That’s why the 2000 election was all but decided by the Supreme Court. 

The National Popular Vote Bill is one proposed remedy. Each state that passes the NPV would award all of its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most popular votes nationwide. It would go into effect in any state only if enough states pass it to ensure the popular vote winner a victory in the Electoral College. 

This is too clever for any problem that it solves. The people of any state in which the NPV is in effect would no longer control that state’s electoral votes. Mississippi could vote three to one for a Republican and see all of its votes awarded to a Democrat. The people of Washington D.C. might see all three of their electoral votes handed over to President-elect Marko Rubio. It is difficult to see why people in North or South Dakota would bother to vote at all. 

There is a much simpler way to make the Electoral College more democratic, if that’s what you want. Any state can abolish winner-take-all and distribute its electoral votes proportionally.  In South Dakota, we could give one electoral vote to any ticket that gets at least a third of the popular vote. That would typically mean one each to candidates of the two major parties. The third vote goes to the statewide winner. 

If enough states do this, popular vote winners would be Electoral College winners every time. No state would be forced to vote for a candidate who is opposed by a majority of its citizens. Of course, you could simply amend the Constitution to replace the Electoral College with the popular vote. Fortunately that is difficult. The amendment process is, thanks to God and James Madison, precisely designed to thwart the whims of simple minded busy bodies.  

Dr. Ken Blanchard is a professor of Political Science at Northern State University and writes for the Aberdeen American News and the blog South Dakota Politics.


07:19 am - Mon, October 10 2011
Bernie Hunhoff said:
We debated the NPV idea in the legislature, and some national proponents came to town to promote it. I agree that the more you look at it, the thornier it gets. There's just no easy reform.But it seems the votes of people from one-party states are already meaningless, especially those of the minority?There's really not a great incentive for a Democrat to bother voting for president in the Dakotas, or for a Republican to bother voting in Massachusetts or D.C.?But I don't have the answer.
12:50 pm - Mon, October 10 2011
kohler said:
Any state that enacts the proportional approach on its own would reduce its own influence. This was the most telling argument that caused Colorado voters to reject this proposal in November 2004 by a 2 to 1 margin.

If the proportional approach were implemented by a state, on its own, it would have to allocate its electoral votes in whole numbers. If a current battleground state were to change its winner-take-all statute to a proportional method for awarding electoral votes, presidential candidates would pay less attention to that state because only one electoral vote would probably be at stake in the state.

The proportional method also could result in third party candidates winning electoral votes that would deny either major party candidate the necessary majority vote of electors and throw the process into Congress to decide.

If the whole-number proportional approach had been in use throughout the country in the nation’s closest recent presidential election (2000), it would not have awarded the most electoral votes to the candidate receiving the most popular votes nationwide. Instead, the result would have been a tie of 269–269 in the electoral vote, even though Al Gore led by 537,179 popular votes across the nation. The presidential election would have been thrown into Congress to decide and resulted in the election of the 2nd place candidate in terms of the national popular vote.

The fractional proportional allocation approach does not assure election of the winner of the nationwide popular vote. In 2000, for example, it would have resulted in the election of the second-place candidate.

A national popular vote is the way to make every person's vote equal and matter to their candidate because it guarantees that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states becomes President.
12:54 pm - Mon, October 10 2011
kohler said:
Most South Dakota and U.S. voters want a national popular vote.

A survey of 1,045 South Dakota voters conducted in January 2011, showed 71% overall support for the idea that the President of the United States should be the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states.

By political affiliation, support for a national popular vote was 61% among Republicans, 82% among Democrats, and 77% among others. By gender, support was 83% among women and 59% among men. By age, support was 73% among 18-29 year olds, 67% among 30-45 year olds, 70% among 46-65 year olds, and 77% for those older than 65.

Now political clout comes from being a battleground state.

Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws presidential elections ignore SD. 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are almost invariably non-competitive, and ignored, in presidential elections. Six regularly vote Republican (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota), and six regularly vote Democratic (Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and DC) in presidential elections.

Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republican voters, Democratic voters, and independent voters, as well as every demographic group. Support in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska -- 70%, DC -- 76%, Delaware --75%, Idaho – 77%, Maine -- 77%, Montana – 72%, Nebraska -- 74%, New Hampshire --69%, Nevada -- 72%, New Mexico -- 76%, Rhode Island -- 74%, South Dakota – 71%, Utah - 70%, Vermont -- 75%, West Virginia – 81%, and Wyoming – 69%.

Nine state legislative chambers in the lowest population states have passed the National Popular Vote bill. It has been enacted by the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Vermont.
12:57 pm - Mon, October 10 2011
anonymous said:
The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

Under National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would be included in the national count. The candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states would get the 270+ electoral votes from the enacting states. That majority of electoral votes guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states wins the presidency.

National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state and district (in ME and NE). Now their votes are counted only for the candidate they did not vote for. Now they don’t matter to their candidate.

With National Popular Vote, elections wouldn’t be about winning states or districts (in ME and NE). No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps.

Every vote, everywhere would be counted equally for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast.

In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republican voters, Democratic voters, and independent voters, as well as every demographic group surveyed in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.
12:58 pm - Mon, October 10 2011
kohler said:
On Election Night, most voters don't care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state or district . . . they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was directly and equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans consider the idea of the candidate with the most popular votes being declared a loser detestable. We don't allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

The National Popular Vote bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large population states, including one house in Arkansas(6), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), The District of Columbia, Maine (4), Michigan (16), Nevada (5), New Mexico (5), New York (29), North Carolina (15), and Oregon (7), and both houses in California (55), Colorado (9), Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island (4), Vermont, and Washington. The bill has been enacted by the District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (19), New Jersey (14), Maryland (11), California (55), Massachusetts (10), Vermont (3), and Washington (13). These nine jurisdictions have 132 electoral votes -- 49% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.
05:21 pm - Mon, October 10 2011
dave tunge said:
Wouldn't it just be easier to elect the candidate who raises the most campaign money?
08:48 am - Tue, October 11 2011
Bernie Hunhoff said:
Touche, Dave. That's sadly what it comes down to. Why bother with all the other little details like registering, campaigning, debating and voting.

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