Beginning with the Iowa caucuses on January 3, 2012, more than half of the states in the nation will hold their presidential primary and caucus elections over the course of the next three months. In the coming years, however, we may well see a significant change in the way the nation chooses its president if the movement for the national popular vote compact continues to gain momentum. And it appears that supporters of the compact public opinion on their side.
As many Americans discovered for the first time following the contested presidential election of 2000, the way in which Electoral College votes are currently awarded allows for the possibility that a candidate for president can win election to the nation's highest office without receiving a majority of the popular vote. The national popular vote compact seeks to ensure that the winner of the national popular vote wins election to the office of the president.
The plan is simple: states that sign on to the compact agree to award their Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote. However, the compact does not come into effect until until enough states have signed on to ensure that a majority of Electoral College votes, i.e. 270 or more, have been pledged in the agreement. On that score, the national popular vote movement is already halfway toward its goal. Eight states and the District of Columbia have already passed legislation endorsing the plan, pledging a total of 132 Electoral College votes to the compact. California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation in support of the drive last summer.
The plan has primarily been forwarded by two non-profit organizations, National Popular Vote Inc. and FairVote. Critics allege that the movement is seeking to make an end-run around the Constitution by effectively abolishing the Electoral College without seeking a Constitutional amendment. In a speech at The Heritage Foundation earlier this month, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky spoke out forcefully against the plan, stating that it could potentially lead to a “catastrophic outcome” such as a constitutional crisis.
The Senate Republican leader said that the national popular vote movement is “getting dangerously close to achieving their goal of eliminating the Electoral College without actually amending the Constitution -- without anybody even noticing, unfortunately, what they’re up to,” and alleged that “the proponents of this absurd and dangerous concept are trying to get this done while nobody notices, just sort of sneak this through.”
A Heritage Foundation report from October argued that the National Popular Vote Compact is nothing more than the latest in a long series of “ill-informed calls to abolish the Electoral College,” stating that it would diminish the influence of smaller states, lead to contentious recounts nationwide and encourage voter fraud.
The plan's opponents face an uphill battle. A Gallup survey conducted in October found that 62% of those polled supported the idea of amending the US Constitution to institute a national popular vote for the office of the president. There was majority support for such a proposal across partisan lines, including 71% of Democrats, 61% of Independents and 53% of Republicans.
In this context, it is noteworthy that the National Popular Vote Compact does not actually seek to abolish the Electoral College. Currently, all but two states award their Electoral College Votes to the winner of their state's popular vote. Yet, there is nothing in the US Constitution stipulating that states must or should award their Electoral College votes in this manner. Rather, Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution says that a state's electors shall be appointed in a manner directed by that state's legislature: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.” The fact that two states currently award their Electoral College votes on a proportional basis demonstrates the freedom of states to delegate their electoral votes as they see fit.
National Popular Vote bills are currently pending in fourteen states – from Alaska to West Virginia – with a total of 146 Electoral Votes. If these bills were to pass into law over the course of the next three years, the compact will have secured 278 Electoral Votes and would come into effect for the 2016 presidential election.
To learn more about the national popular vote compact, visit National Popular Vote.