In the March 2012 article, “Why National Popular Vote Is a Bad Idea,” by Curtis Gans, the author makes a strong case against the National Popular Vote movement. Gans argues that, although the electoral college system is not without flaws, it is ultimately better than the alternative. Based on the argument he makes, the principle of indirect presidential selection should be maintained in the United States, but it should be altered slightly in order to strengthen minority voices and increase the competitiveness of races in all of the states.
The National Popular Vote movement has now been around for more than a decade. The campaign started in late 2006 and gained political momentum over the course of 2007. The long-term goal of the movement is to get rid of the electoral college system and replace it with a system by which the president is chosen by popular vote. In the short-term, proponents of the National Popular Vote movement are trying to convince states to pass legislation to join the National Popular Vote Compact, under which a state would pledge all of its electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote nationwide. Although every state legislature in the country considered a National Popular Vote bill between 2006 and 2013, bills have been passed in only ten states and Washington, DC. It is important to note that these bills will not go into effect until similar bills are passed by states with electoral votes totaling over 270, since that is currently the number of electoral votes that is required to win the presidency. Right now, the votes of states that have joined the National Popular Vote Compact totals only 165 (“National Popular Vote”).
Gans begins his argument by pointing out all of the negative consequences of adopting a system where presidents are elected by a national popular vote instead of the electoral college. Perhaps most vividly, he argues that a close election might result in a recount in all states, with recount practices varying by locality, which would be extremely chaotic. Additionally, holding a national direct election would lead to the nationwide extension of the negative media campaign that is currently only conducted in the battleground states, which would make campaigns more negative and undermine citizens’ trust in the overall process. It would also mean that the most important component of the campaign would be television advertising rather than grassroots efforts, which would probably lead to a decrease in voter participation. There would also be less need for coalition-building among interest groups, so minority voices would lose their power. Gans also addresses one of the main arguments of proponents of the National Popular Vote, which is that votes for independent and third-party candidates can swing an entire election by affecting the vote within a key battleground state, even if they get only a tiny fraction of the vote. According to Gans, this is a much smaller problem than the possibility that the president of the United States could be elected with only 30 percent of the vote.
Gans also takes issue with the most basic premise of the National Popular Vote campaign, which is the principle of “one person, one vote.” The proponents claim that the election would only be fair if every person’s vote counts for an equal amount. They also point out that in four presidential elections (now five, since the article was written in 2012), the president won the electoral college without winning the popular vote. Gans offers a more nuanced argument for the benefits of the electoral college system, claiming that equality is an important part of democracy, but that the principles of pluralism and federalism should also be considered by the presidential election system. That way, the voices of minority groups will not be inevitably overshadowed by the will of the majority. Also, the current system supports individual citizen engagement and coalition-building among minority interest groups, which are both essential for the maintenance of a healthy democracy.
In addition, Gans points out that the benefits of pluralism, grassroots campaigning, and coalition-building are only observable in a few states because most states award their electoral votes by a “winner take all” method. If they chose a different method of allocating their electoral votes, like choosing electors by congressional district or dividing the number of electors based on the number of popular votes that go for each candidate, those states could become competitive as well, and they would therefore reap the benefits of the electoral college system. Nevertheless, Gans’ argument is not entirely convincing, because there is still an argument to be made that if smaller population by geography requires more representation, perhaps other small groups, like the extremely wealthy, should also have more power. It must be noted that the decision to use geography as the main factor in presidential voting reflects the principle of equality, since voters have a choice about where they live, whereas it could be much harder to change other factors, like socioeconomic status.
One solution that could improve the current presidential voting system is to have the president chosen by the House of Representatives, stipulating that the representative could not make their choice known while running for their seat. Like the electoral college system, this method would account for geography, since congressional districts are divided by geography. It would also increase citizen engagement, since people could directly interact with the representative who would be choosing the president, rather than making their choice based on constant negative campaign advertising. Additionally, it would encourage coalition-building, since interest groups would be motivated to come together to choose a representative who would vote for a candidate with whom they share values. Finally, it would address the problem of the lack of competitiveness in some states, since the congressional race would be local, and therefore equally competitive in all districts. In this way, by making the presidential election even more indirect, the system would actually give the people even more power in the overall presidential election process.