The United States is unique among nations worldwide in its system of “trust votes” to elect its president. This system, known as the Electoral College, involves bestowing states with a certain number of “electors” who, if elected, cast their ballots in turn for the nation’s two highest offices. By empowering the Electoral College to elect the president, the US Constitution has made a states’ number of electors the de facto measure of a state’s value to a presidential candidate. The system made sense when our Founding Fathers conceived it – but today, as presidential campaigns become years-long, hyper-competitive, globally broadcast phenomena, there are numerous questions about the aged system’s efficacy.
The electoral college, a system which was designed for an era of retail politicking and a much smaller America, feels the pressure of the weight of the much larger, diverse, and politically active nation that is America today. Over the past few decades, cracks in the system’s application have emerged. For one, we still vote for individual human “electors”, who can undemocratically break a pledge for a candidate and vote as they wish. The system also allows candidates who win the right states to take the presidency despite losing the popular vote as took place in 1876, 1888, and 2000. Perhaps the most pressing concern is the disproportional emphasis placed on competitive states over the rest of the nation. All these reasons have sparked concern that reform is necessary in order to modernize the electoral system. The National Popular Vote Initiative wished to address some of these concerns by tying the Electoral College to the national vote. While votes from all states would become relevant, only votes in favor of the two major parties will make a difference. Another solution, Ranked Preference Voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting, allows voters to mark candidates in order of preference. This solution, radical as it may be, would allow supporters of all parties to play a role in the president’s selection.
The National Popular Vote Proposal
The 2000 election demonstrated one of the primary gripes with the Electoral College. George W. Bush was able to win the election without the popular vote. Ever since Bush’s victory, there has been a growing movement among those negatively impacted by the seemingly undemocratic result to prevent such future injustices by locking the presidential results to the popular vote nationwide rather than the votes of individual states. The attention famously given to states like Florida and Ohio would be diluted by requiring the candidates to address more national concerns. Giving the presidency to the candidate who performs best nationwide would force candidates to cater to voters all across the nation, rather than tailoring his or her pitch to particular states and encourage a more inclusive campaign. Dorothy Scheeline, an electoral reform activist currently working with Fairvote, an organization advocating for electoral reform in the US, noted that “it’s [the proposal] putting the focus on the individual voter, and not on the candidates and not on these larger bodies,” she noted; furthermore, she added that “the President, represents all of the people; he doesn’t represent all of the states,” which would justify rethinking the Electoral College system.
However, a National Popular Vote does bring up some concerns. Perhaps lifting the burden of campaigning heavily in certain states will lift the need to address specific regional concerns entirely, allowing candidates to win on general platitudes and unspecified policy positions. Furthermore, the Electoral College highlights the importance for presidential candidates by campaigning in swing states around the nation to cater to voters in very different locales and situations. With a national popular vote in place, candidates could focus on only urban voters or only rural voters, for example, while ignoring other constituencies, and thereby failing to display an appeal throughout America’s different socioeconomic backgrounds. It is for these reasons that the Compact, though noble, could perhaps be misguided. In order to truly enfranchise the nation, perhaps the concern is not with how electoral votes are determined, but how we mark the ballots themselves.
Ranked Preference Voting
Despite the nebulous potential of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, there are still problems that would need to be addressed. In most modern presidential elections, there have been more than two candidates, with notable 3rd-Party runs in 1992, 1996, and 2000, which leads to situations where the winning candidate often fails to achieve a majority. Millions of citizens regularly vote for candidates outside the two-party paradigm, but the system renders their votes effectively irrelevant. Ranked Preference Voting, by changing the voting system, allows all voters to have a greater say in the selection of a winner.
RPV, though it seems complicated at first, is an equitable system that has been adopted in Australia, India, and Ireland and is slowly gaining popularity in the United States. RPV, as the name reveals, requires voters to rank candidates in order of preference on their ballots. If no candidate gains a majority, the weakest candidates are eliminated and the votes for them reallocated to second-choice candidates until a majority is achieved. This system allows third-party supporters to vote for their candidate without having to worry about the political calculus, while at the same time ensuring that every candidate elected has the support of a majority.
Director Rob Richie of Fairvote says that, though “Very few people know about [RPV], sadly,” when people are introduced to it “it really resonates.” RPV has so far been implemented in about a dozen cities across the United States, including Portland, Maine, San Francisco, California, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, with legislation pending in a number of other cities and states. Dorothey Scheeline of Fairvote noted a great deal of support from “all over the political spectrum” in her advocacy work. She believes that the approach is “Voter-centric, not candidate-centric”, which is why major party candidates are sometimes hesitant to embrace it. Scheeline also noted that RPV runs against the “divisive political culture that has developed recently” by encouraging candidates to try to become the second-choice of their opponents’ supporters.
Despite its many advantages, RPV does have its detractors, especially among those that fear a fractured party system causing instability as it sometimes has in Europe. Richie insists that “RPV is still winner take all, so major parties, if they do their work as major parties, should still win major representation.” Opposition to any such change in the status quo is to be expected. The goal so far, according to Richie is “to build a track record on the local and state level”, before eventually pushing for RPV’s adoption at the presidential level.
The Making of the President, 2016?
As more and more municipalities and states adopt RPV, and it’s “Track Record” grows, the likelihood of its adoption at the national level will grow as well. The National Popular Vote proposal, though well-intentioned, will continue to be stained with partisan implications for the foreseeable future, and is likely to be confined to Democrat-controlled states until the memory of 2000 fades. RPV, because it can be implemented at the local level, can continue to spread with or without the approval of the nation as a whole, and will eventually be able to gain large-scale approval as it demonstrates its effectiveness. Both RPV and NPV are in the cards, but even the cautiously optimistic Richie doesn’t see either proposal being in place at the national level until at least 2016. Voters may not see the benefits of electoral changes in the near future, but momentum for reform is clearly building. If all goes well, “Voter-centric” elections may be on the way.