Popular Vote Plan Would Do More Harm Than Good
Since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election with a majority in the Electoral College but only a minority of the popular vote, ideas for somehow reforming the presidential election system have received a lot of attention. One of the most successful of these is a plan—already adopted by the legislatures of 11 states (with 165 electoral votes)—to award all the electoral votes of these states to the winner of the national popular vote. The plan goes into effect when states totaling 270 electoral votes have aligned themselves with this initiative.
Unfortunately, like most of the ideas to improve our election system, this one will not accomplish what its sponsors intend, will result in the election of presidents who only get a fraction of the popular vote, and will likely enrage the voters of the very states that have already voted to join the system. The sponsors of this plan have not thought it through.
The first thing to understand about the American voting system is that it is the Electoral College that assures the continued existence of the two-party system. Because the winner of the presidency must get a majority of the electoral votes, the candidates of splinter or special interest parties have no chance to win—and for that reason they cannot get sufficient financing and other support to mount a serious campaign.
We have certainly had third and fourth parties in presidential elections, but their most effective role has been to bring ideas into the debate that might never otherwise receive attention, and they generally don’t survive to the next election. Nevertheless, when they have been in the field, they have deprived the candidates of the major parties of a national popular majority even though they have not interfered with the choice of the president through the Electoral College. Modern examples are the two Clinton elections in 1992 and 1996, and George W. Bush’s election in 2000.
The NPV plan would vastly improve the chances of a splinter or special interest candidate to win the presidency. In a wide enough field, a special interest candidate could easily win with less than a quarter of the national popular vote, and for this reason there will inevitably be a large number of splinter or special interest candidates running for president if the plan goes into effect.
Let’s imagine a presidential race in which candidates are nominated by the Democrats, the Republicans, a right-to-life party, a pro-choice party, the peace-through-strength party, a balanced budget party, a gun rights party, a gun control party and the Socialist Party. All of these ideas have widespread support through the American population, and no one can doubt—given the fervor with which some voters back some of these issues—that candidates promising to give these voters what they want will garner widespread national support.
If the candidate of, say, the Socialist Party got 20 percent of the vote , while the candidates of all the other parties divided the remaining votes among themselves, the socialist candidate would receive the 270 electoral votes of the states that have joined the NPV plan and would become president. The same would be true if the pro-choice candidate or the pro-life candidate were to receive the 20 percent. Imagine the anger of voters in New York, California, New Jersey and New York—four states that have pledged to give their electoral votes to the candidate with the most popular votes—if the pro-life candidate or the gun rights candidate were to win the presidency this way.
Even if either the Republican or Democratic candidate were to receive the most popular votes—let’s say 25 percent—he or she would become the president with fewer popular votes than President Trump received in 2016. That would leave the United States with a leader who has no real mandate for change, and very little authority to speak on behalf of the United States in the councils of the world, or to send American troops to war were that necessary. In sum, the NPV plan does not improve on the Electoral College; in reality, it would only add to the discord and dissatisfaction we already have in this country.
Americans should recognize at this point that all of the concern about the Electoral College is misplaced. It is a system in which, every four years, we have 50 separate statewide elections for choosing the president, rather than a single national popular vote. Given the enormous differences of opinion among Americans on the major issues facing the country, it is no small thing that we have a way to do this that the vast majority of Americans consider legitimate. The election of 2016 put this system to the ultimate test and, thankfully, it passed.