One outcome of the 2016 election has been renewed interest in reforming the way we elect the President of the US. It is now fairly commonplace for progressives to call for abolition of the electoral college (EC) so as to award the presidency to the winner of the popular vote. There is good reason to get rid of the EC. Because every state is guaranteed at least two electoral votes regardless of population, the college over-represents more rural, less populous states, violating the basic democratic principle of one person/one vote. (The US Senate is even worse in this regard, since it represents all states equally.)
Abolition of the EC would require a constitutional amendment, which in turn requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress and ratification by three quarters of the states. The actual chances of overcoming these formidable hurdles in any foreseeable future are close to nil, for two overlapping reasons: First, there are enough less populous states to block a change that would dilute their political power. Second, the EC favors the Republican Party, which has generally not been inclined to advance democratic principles over political expediency. But the practical unlikelihood of achieving a desired objective isn’t necessarily a reason not to advocate for that objective. Advocacy can make an important political point about the serious flaws in our democracy, flaws that tend to be defended most predictably by one of our two major political parties.
Still, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of electing the POTUS by a simple plurality of the popular vote. Consider the 2000 presidential election. George W. Bush won the electoral vote even while narrowly losing the popular vote to Al Gore. That is widely and reasonably considered to have been an unjust outcome. But just suppose that instead of losing the popular vote by almost 600,000, Bush had won it by that same margin. The method of election, it would seem, would have properly reflected the popular will. But wait: Bush and Gore weren’t the only two candidates running. There was a third party candidate—leftist Ralph Nader—who won over 2 million votes. It is reasonable to suppose that most of Nader’s voters would have preferred the centrist Gore to the rightist Bush. So, in this hypothetical vote breakout, the rightist would have won the election fairly and squarely even though a majority of the electorate preferred a candidate to his left. The popular vote plurality method of election would not have reflected the popular will in this particular hypothetical case, which could easily have occurred. A similar situation could easily recur: In only 3 of our last 7 presidential elections did any candidate win a popular vote majority.
The election of the POTUS by popular vote would pose no problem in a straight tw0-party system in which one candidate was always certain to win a majority. The problem arises when a third party entrant keeps both major party candidates below 50%. The simple abolition of the EC would effectively ignore the votes of 3rd party candidates. This, to my mind, would be a serious flaw from the standpoint of democratic principle. We need to rectify this flaw in our proposal. There are various proposals for and experiments with ways of dealing with the third party issue, like asking voters to indicate their second choice, and then factoring those second choices into the election decision, but I think the complexity of such procedures could impede the legitimacy of the outcome. The simplest and therefore best solution to the problem of reflecting the will of third party voters would be to call for a run-off election between the two leading candidates. Voters for third party candidates would then have an opportunity to switch to their preferred major party candidate. Run-off elections have a substantial history at the state level in the US, so the idea of a run-off presidential election shouldn’t seem alien to our political tradition. The process for election of the POTUS should be simple and transparent. A runoff election meets that bill.
NOTE: A movement to get around the constitutional problem described in the second paragraph above is gaining ground at the state level. Delaware’s governor recently made his state the13th to sign on to a pledge to award all the state’s electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. Participating states now represent 184 of the 270 votes needed to elect the president, which is also the threshold at which the compact would take effect. Once it takes effect, the plurality winner would be assured election to the presidency. I’m all for advancing this compact, which would effect a significant improvement in the way we elect the POTUS. It represents a practical though imperfect solution to the problem of presidential elections that don’t represent the popular will. But if we are going to advocate a constitutional amendment to solve this problem, we should do it right.