Plans are afoot to scrap or circumvent the Electoral College as America’s vehicle for electing presidents. Beware: the unintended consequences could be dire. The current system turns each state’s boundaries into a firebreak, preventing corrupt, incompetent or unpopular election procedures from becoming uncontrollable infernos — nationwide Florida 2000-style interminable disputes, litigation and compromised legitimacy of presidents.
Florida 2000 was a perfect storm requiring three conditions: First, the Electoral College had to hinge on a single state. Flip Florida and you have President Al Gore. Second, Florida’s popular vote had to be close. (The final difference was 537 votes.) Third, Florida’s pandemoniacal electoral process — hanging chads, dimpled chads, butterfly ballots, undervotes and overvotes — threw the results into question.
New Hampshire was close as well and could have flipped the Electoral College, but the state’s relatively orderly process prevented a “New Hampshire 2000” crisis. (New Hampshire had its own vote-counting disaster in its 1974-75 U.S. Senate race.) But in 2000, the Electoral College limited the fiasco to Florida alone. No need to review any other state’s votes. But with a national popular vote, any close election (like 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2004 or 2016) sends parties scurrying for extra votes in every nook and cranny across the nation.
In 2000, five weeks passed between election night and the Supreme Court’s final say in Bush v. Gore. Consider the time needed for litigation covering coast-to-coast disputes.
Yet the turmoil need not wait till election night. A national popular vote initiates an arms race in which states strive to make their electorates redder or bluer before the first ballots are even cast. With the Electoral College, more Democratic voters in California or more Republican voters in Kentucky have no effect on the national outcome. Tilting the voter rolls only matters in the relatively few battleground states. But abolishing the Electoral College hands every state official powerful incentive to bolster his party’s registrations and turnout and limit the other party’s numbers. Lower the voting age to 16. Suppress minority registrations. Pad rolls with ineligible or fictitious voters. Strike eligible voters from rolls. Lie, cheat and steal if necessary.
A national popular vote has fans on both sides of the aisle, but present-day support is strongest among Democrats — not surprising, since George Bush and Donald Trump both won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. It’s important to recall, though, that as Election Day 2000 approached, much speculation centered on the possibility that Bush would win the popular vote and Gore the Electoral College. Not long before the 2012 election, polls suggested that Mitt Romney might win the popular vote while Barack Obama won the electoral vote.
A constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College seems unlikely, but there’s a plan in motion to circumvent the current system. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia, with a combined 189 electoral votes, have approved a “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact” (NPVIC). If additional states with at least 81 electoral votes join the compact, all those states agree to give their electoral votes — enough for the presidency — to the candidate with a popular vote plurality.
Consider the following hypothetical scenario: By 2020, a collection of mostly Democratic-voting states with 270 electoral votes implement the NPVIC. The remaining states — all or mostly Republican-leaning states, continue the state-by-state rules established by the 12th Amendment in 1804. Some third-party candidate peels 3 percent or 4 percent off the Democrats’ vote total, allowing President Trump to win a narrow plurality of the popular vote. The Democratic candidate carries enough states to win the Electoral College — but only under the old rules.
Under this scenario, the red states cast their electoral votes for President Trump — not enough electoral votes to award him re-election. However, the NPVIC states, comprising a majority of the Electoral College, are legally committed to cast their votes for popular-vote-winner — President Trump in this scenario. The result is the 45th president winning the Electoral College unanimously or nearly so — perhaps after weeks or months of dispute and litigation.
Make no mistake: abolishing or circumventing the Electoral College can work to the disadvantage of either party. More important, such plans risk permanently destabilizing a system that has generally worked well for over two centuries.