Commentary

Liberals Would Undo a State-Based System

Ever since Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the 2000 election, many Democrats have argued for eliminating the Electoral College. Liberal enmity toward the constitutional method of electing the president is not new. Early in the 20th century, Progressives argued for replacing the Constitution with a “national democracy” and direct election of the president.

Liberals now have launched a crusade to impose direct election of the president without amending the Constitution. The National Popular Vote effort proposes an interstate compact among states that possess, together, a majority of electoral votes. The states in the compact would agree to cast their electoral votes as a bloc for the winner of the national popular vote. Direct election of the president would thus replace our current state-based electoral districts for selecting the president.

National Popular Vote advocates argue they need not amend the Constitution to bring about direct presidential election, but the framers of the Constitution explicitly considered and rejected direct election by a vote of nine states to one. Whatever one makes of the Constitution, it cannot provide for direct election of the president.

An amendment unlikely

Of course, the framers were not infallible. We can amend the Constitution through supermajority votes in Congress and among the states. National Popular Vote supporters recognize that they don’t have enough support to amend the Constitution to do away with the Electoral College. Hence, they propose an end run around the intentions of the framers.

Many people believe the Electoral College favors small states that, in turn, control enough votes to defeat an amendment to impose direct election. The Constitution allocates presidential electors on the basis of a state’s representatives in the Senate and the House. Since all states have the same number of senators, small states appear to have greater leverage over a presidential election than they would have under direct election. Several states with a large number of eligible voters might well acquire more power under direct election.

Liberal enmity toward the constitutional method of electing the president is not new.”

But a majority of states would face either large losses or trivial gains from moving to direct election. Tennessee falls into the latter category. Under the current system, Tennessee has 2.04 percent of all presidential electors; under direct election, it would have 2.14 percent of all eligible voters for president. That’s not much incentive to amend the Constitution.

Larger states may benefit from the Electoral College. The most powerful states are those whose votes decide an election. These are the battleground states, and historically, they’ve been more likely to deliver decisive electors. Many large states fit this model and would become less influential under direct election. And not just large states. One study found Tennessee was the 14th most influential state using this measure of power.

If Americans want to elect their president directly, they can and should amend the Constitution to that end. However, such a change is unlikely — and not because small states have an unfair advantage. The Electoral College persists because most states, large and small, have reason to think it serves their interests.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.