July 30th, 2010
12:00 PM ET

Dropping out of Electoral College

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.l.cnn.net/cnn/2008/POLITICS/02/29/white.house.plagiarism/art.whitehouse.gi.jpg]

Political movements are becoming ever more like a match tossed into a room full of dynamite; no matter which stick you are aiming for, chances are a lot of others will fire off too. A case in point: The movement to side step the Electoral College and elect presidents purely by popular vote.

Massachusetts jumped hard on that bandwagon, and rattled down the last stretch of road toward making it their law this week. New Jersey, Maryland, Washington, Illinois, and Hawaii have already approved such measures.

The attraction is simple. Americans don’t like the idea of the person they pick for office losing the election because of this strange, historic institution of the Electoral College. In fairness, it doesn’t happen often, but it can and it did in recent memory. Al Gore in 2000 had more popular votes than George Bush, but you may have noticed Mr. Gore never moved his things into the Oval Office, we went to Iraq, and the rest…as they say…is the stuff vendettas are made of.

So common wisdom has it that disgruntled Democrats are driving this movement. That said, pundits on both sides of the aisle are dissecting the ways in which a popular vote might benefit their party. But if this movement continues, I suspect they both might be shocked by the long term results.

Voters are hugely united by a profound irritation with the status quo, and a purely popular vote would make it much harder for either party to triangulate key states to win, especially in a tight election. That volatility could make the White House door swing much wider for all sorts of third party, no party, and wild party candidates who simply capture the public’s fancy in the home stretch. Did anyone say Howard Stern?

What’s more, if the winner must have a majority, not merely a plurality, relatively oddball players who grab, oh say, ten percent of the vote, could suddenly become kingmakers; wheeling and dealing their support to whichever near-front runner will give them the most concessions.

I’m not saying a popular vote is a bad idea. What I’m saying is the unintended consequences could also prove to be utterly unexpected and calamitous for the two parties and their supporters, some of whom even now seem blind to the surprises the public may have in store for them.

Filed under: Raw Politics • Tom Foreman
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. J.V.Hodgson

    To me the electoral college for choosing a President is a system designed by politicians for political reasons. A straight view of who got most votes for president would not very often change who became president, but could.
    The issue is deeper in my view as the real bits that need changing are, because of demographic/population changes to review:-
    a) The boundaries of House of representatives and the numbers of voters in said areas,
    b) Also for the Senate, we may need to increase the numbers of Senators but should be determined by a Population standard and of course for each state if it is to be truly democratic. But then ban pork legislation.
    I'm looking for a way to eliminate gridlock in the Senate especially, by hopefully getting more independents in there.

    August 2, 2010 at 1:08 am |
  2. Maria

    The electoral college helps to level the playing field for all states. Without the E.C. many more states will be unfairly overlooked! The problem is not the electoral college system it's the voters who only vote with their party or not at all, instead of voting for the best candidate!

    July 31, 2010 at 10:51 pm |
  3. kohler

    The current state-by-state winner-take-all system encourages regional candidates. A third-party candidate has 51 separate opportunities to shop around for states that he or she can win or affect the results. Minor-party candidates have significantly affected the outcome in six (40%) of the 15 presidential elections in the past 60 years (namely the 1948, 1968, 1980, 1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections). Candidates such as John Anderson (1980), Ross Perot (1992 and 1996), and Ralph Nader (2000) did not win a plurality of the popular vote in any state, but managed to affect the outcome by switching electoral votes in numerous particular states. Extremist candidacies as Strom Thurmond and George Wallace won a substantial number of electoral votes in numerous states.

    In elections in which the winner is the candidate receiving the most votes throughout the entire jurisdiction served by that office, historical evidence shows that there is no massive proliferation of third-party candidates and candidates do not win with small percentages. For example, in 905 elections for governor in the last 60 years, the winning candidate received more than 50% of the vote in over 91% of the elections.

    If the National Popular Vote bill were to become law, it would not change the need for candidates to build a winning coalition across demographics. Any candidate who yielded, for example, the 21% of Americans who live in rural areas in favor of a "big city" approach would not likely win the national popular vote. Candidates would still have to appeal to a broad range of demographics, and perhaps even more so, because the election wouldn't be capable of coming down to just one demographic, such as voters in Ohio.

    July 31, 2010 at 7:50 pm |
  4. David, Indiana

    @Tammy Christine That's great. Have a wonderful weekend.

    July 31, 2010 at 9:30 am |
  5. mvymvy

    The current system of electing the president ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, do not reach out to all of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. The reason for this is the state-by-state winner-take-all rule (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but now used by 48 states), under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state.

    Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only a handful of closely divided "battleground" states and their voters. In 2008, candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their campaign events and ad money in just six states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Massachusetts (the 13th largest population state, with 12 electoral college votes) and 19 of the 22 smallest and medium-small states (with less than 7 electoral college votes) were not among them. Over half (57%) of the events were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia). In 2004, candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their money and campaign visits in five states; over 80% in nine states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states, and candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their money and campaign visits in five states and over 99% of their money in 16 states.

    Two-thirds of the states and people have been merely spectators to the presidential elections.

    July 31, 2010 at 1:16 am |
  6. David, Indiana

    Yep actually communicate with people.

    I think the movement against the electoral college is a waste of time. But you are right to point the possible results. I've felt there's a vacuum of leadership from both parties in some respects anyway. In some ways.

    July 31, 2010 at 12:45 am |
  7. David, Indiana

    The electoral college ensures that every state will have a say in the presidential election. If it were only the popular vote, campaigns would only take place in the most populous states. The fact is, the President is the President of the United States so every state should have a say. The point is that candidates have to communicate with people in every state of the union so the full breadth and depth of American opinion is expressed and a candidate has to respond to all of those pts of vw. So instead of candidates simply leveraging numbers against each other on the issues they have to actually communicate with people all over the country.

    July 30, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
  8. Tony Hunter (ISBBQ)

    I am from Indiana and I have been a against the electoral college since I was old enough to know what it is! The EC does not result in the will of the American people, the popular vote does! Regardless of what state a person may live in, they have the right for their vote to count DIRECTLY toward the election of the US president. Anything else is a bastardization of voters rights – in my opinion of course.

    July 30, 2010 at 1:52 pm |
  9. NotPossible

    ...As you know, Anderson; anything that abandons Electoral College procedures is against the rules in my book.

    July 30, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
  10. Lars

    I agree 100% that the partisan consequences of a national popular vote are completely unknown. No-one can say which party will benefit. A national popular vote will fundamentally alter the way candidates campaign for President and I think that is necessary. No longer will attention be paid exclusively to the ½ dozen battleground states. Instead, they will campaign everywhere for votes because it won’t matter what state the vote comes from.

    I like the idea because a vote should be a vote. Someone who lives in Ohio or Florida shouldn’t be more important than someone who lives in Kansas or Wyoming. There shouldn’t be swing states. Every vote, whether from a big state or small state, rural or urban, should count equally.

    July 30, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  11. Tammy Christine

    We are gettin it! Thank god.. The next president will be elected, with the support of the entire country.. And then some.. Stories are getting very intersting over there at CNN. Love ya

    July 30, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  12. michael

    I live in springfield illinois & im shocked that our state goverment is one of States that are even considering even a bone headed ideal of getting rid of the electoral college....Have iliinois already voted on this? I dont remember them running this ideal by tha people.......

    July 30, 2010 at 12:32 pm |