One person, one vote. Direct election of the president and vice president. Can we, at last, make these democratic aspirations a reality? If not now, after a violent attempt to stop the Electoral College votes from being certified, then when?
The history of our country is one of continual expansion of suffrage. In the beginning, only male landowners could vote — that was enough of a leap forward for the 18th century. Then the vote was expanded to include all men over 21. After the Civil War, former male slaves were granted the vote. In 1919, women finally won the right after a 42-year struggle. And in 1970 the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Voter suppression, intimidation and gerrymandering have all infringed on voters’ rights and these tactics must be stopped. But with universal suffrage for all citizens over the age of 18 granted by law, it’s time to move to the last phase of the great experiment in democracy: election of the president and vice president by popular vote. It came close to passing in 1969 and has been attempted several times since. It need not be complicated (see box for wording on the amendment proposed in 2005).
The Electoral College is an antiquated and byzantine system that erects numerous obstacles between citizens and their choices for president. It’s a cause currently identified with Democrats, but a year when Democrats won both the electoral and popular votes is a good time to revive the movement. There will be no whiff of sour grapes as there would have been when Hillary Clinton and Al Gore won the popular vote and lost in the Electoral College.
Yes, abolishing the Electoral College would have to be accomplished through an amendment to the Constitution, and yes, that’s difficult. But the women suffragists did not give up their fight and neither should we. If it’s going to take 42 years, we’d better get started.
Finally, if the Electoral College is too steeped in tradition to cast aside, we can just keep it and switch to the popular vote as the deciding factor. (Note that the 2005 proposal does not mention the Electoral College.) Relegate the Electoral College to a colorful but irrelevant feature of election night coverage on TV, which is what the popular vote is now. Meanwhile, citizens can be helped to understand what is in it for them if we elect our president by popular vote.
We’re willing to bet that most Americans wrongly believe they are voting for the candidate of their choice when they’re actually voting for an elector who may or may not be pledged to vote for that candidate. But if your candidate fails to win a majority of votes in the state, your elector doesn’t get to vote and neither do you (unless you live in Maine or Nebraska, where the electoral votes are proportional). If you are a Democrat in Alabama or a Republican in New York, your vote simply doesn’t count in the Electoral College.
Furthermore, there’s a strong disincentive for candidates of either party to campaign in a state strongly identified as reliably red or blue, and a disincentive for people in such a state to vote.
The Electoral College assigns votes based on population plus two votes that represent each state’s two seats in the Senate. California, with a population of 39,370,000, gets the same voting boost as Wyoming with a population of 580,000. The vote of a Wyoming resident in the Electoral College thus counts 3.6 times more than the vote of a resident of California. How is that fair?
This watershed year has also revealed the susceptibility of the Electoral College to meddling by state legislators, state attorneys general, members of Congress and even an unscrupulous president who sought to throw out the winning slate of electors. Costly recounts of votes were required in swing states where the votes were close. An election that should have been decided clearly and promptly was subjected to unsubstantiated charges of fraud and dragged out for months, causing lasting damage to voter confidence and culminating in a violent rampage in the Capitol Jan. 6.
None of this would have happened if the winners of the election had been decided by the popular vote. The margins of victory in the entire country’s popular vote are too large to warrant recounts in most states or investigations of perceived voting irregularities in any one state. The result would likely be clear and indisputable, timely and fully democratic.
But wait, isn’t there already a movement afoot to choose the president by popular vote? Yes, there is — it’s called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and would require support from states possessing a total 270 Electoral College votes. The compact has been approved by 16 states (all of which are blue) with another 74 Electoral College votes needed to go into effect. While enormous effort has gone into the planning and its aims are admirable, the compact is by its very nature unstable, subject to political pressure, changing demographics and to the whims of state legislatures. By retaining the Electoral College, the compact keeps most of its complications, delays and potential for mischief.
Finally, the compact is not necessarily easier to accomplish than affirming the direct national popular vote as the deciding factor in a presidential election.
One person, one vote. It’s time.
— Linda Leavitt is a former editor of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Liam Murphy is her husband.