The 2017 Connecticut General Assembly’s Government Administration and Elections (GAE) Committee has before it several bills that would make two significant changes in the presidential Electoral College process. Both concepts would be major changes that merit serious and thoughtful consideration.
The first proposal would proportionately award Connecticut’s electoral college votes among the candidates in accordance with the percentage of votes they receive in the general election in the state.
The second proposal would have Connecticut join a interstate compact called the National Popular Vote Compact (NPVC), under which all the electoral votes of each participating state would be cast for the winner of the popular vote in the nation, without regard to how the candidates did in the individual participating states. The compact would become binding when the number of states representing more than 50 percent of the electoral votes of all the states join the NPVC, and the compact would assure that the winner of the national popular vote would be elected president.
A proposal to award Connecticut’s electoral votes proportionally has been around for many years. Under current law, all but two states in the country award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. The effect of winner-take-all elections is that some states are denied the benefit of vigorous campaigns. Modern campaigns quickly identify battleground states in which the outcome is not predetermined. Each campaign then puts its resources into those battleground states, which results in intensive campaigns only in those states.
The real benefit of having a proportional system would be that the voters of the state would actually have an opportunity to have a meaningful role in the election process. In recent years, the voters in Connecticut have voted for Democratic candidates for president by large margins. A Republican candidate who campaigned in Connecticut might be successful in narrowing the margin, but unless he or she were to get 51 percent of the popular votes, the candidate would get no electoral votes from Connecticut because Connecticut is winner-take-all. Under a proportional system, even if the Republican were to lose Connecticut, a vigorous campaign could result in winning some of the electoral votes from Connecticut. Similarly, if the Democratic candidate were to take Connecticut for granted and not campaign here, that candidate might lose a portion of the total electoral votes from Connecticut under a proportionate system.
In the past, when the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan, was sweeping the state, the proposal for proportionally awarding Connecticut’s Electoral College votes was popular among Democratic legislators. The Democrats realized that getting some electoral votes from Connecticut would have been better than losing all of the electoral votes. Republicans opposed proportionate awarding since they wished to retain winner-take-all while the Republicans were winning.
However, in recent years, when the Democratic presidential candidates were sweeping Connecticut, the Democrats no longer saw any benefit to their party and ceased supporting the proportional vote proposal. This year the proposal is being put forward by the Republicans, but it is unlikely to pass in a Democrat-controlled Legislature.
The proposal to join the NPVC is really an attempt to do an end-run around the Electoral College process as set out in the U.S. Constitution, which gives each state exclusive control of how to award its electoral votes. The proponents of the NPVC have argued that the majority of voters support the election of the president by popular vote, but because it is too cumbersome to amend the Constitution to change to a popular election of the president, the states should simply amend the process by compact. In fact, the NPVC has already been approved by 11 states, who control 165 electoral votes—which equals 61 percent of the 270 electoral votes necessary to elect a president.
There are some serious questions and issues relating to a compact like the NPVC. Is such a compact constitutional? Does it need to be approved by Congress?
How would we enforce the requirement that electors vote against the will of their state? Under the NVPC, Electoral College members would be required to vote for the national winner even though their state did not support that person.
Who would determine who won the popular vote? An example of a close election is the 2000 Bush/Gore contest, which was decided by about 500 votes. Because Florida was the deciding state, only the Florida votes had to be recounted—and that was disruptive enough. Under the NPVC, if the popular vote were to result in a very narrow margin of victory, and the challenger wanted a recount, every polling place in America would have to be recounted. Every vote in every state would be contested. No results would be final until the last state supreme court resolved any appeals on any contested ballots. It is difficult to imagine how chaotic the country would be, or how this could be resolved by inauguration day.
Some argue that the American people should not be governed by a presidential candidate for whom the majority didn’t vote, and that our election process should be changed. The interesting irony of this argument is that, in this past election, neither of the major party candidates received a majority of the popular vote: Trump got 46 percent of the votes; Clinton got 48 percent. The other 6 percent of the votes were divided among third-party candidates. Trump was elected without winning a plurality of the popular vote, because he won the electoral college.
Being elected while losing the popular vote has happened five times in our history. It last occurred during President George W. Bush’s election in 2000. Getting elected with a plurality, but not the majority, of the popular vote has happened in about 50 percent of the presidential elections since President Truman in 1948. Truman had 49.5 percent of the popular vote. President Kennedy was elected with 49.7 percent, President Clinton was elected the first time with 43 percent, and the second time with 49 percent. President Lincoln was actually elected the first time with 39 percent of the popular vote.
Neither of the proposals before the GAE ensure that the president will be elected by a majority of the total votes cast. However, many democracies throughout the world do require a majority to win and require runoff elections when a candidate doesn’t get more than 50 percent of the votes. Last year the U.S. senator from Louisiana was not elected until Dec. 10, because he didn’t get a majority of the popular vote in the November election and had a runoff. Interestingly, if there had been a runoff in last year’s presidential election, it is believed that most of the Green Party votes would have gone to Clinton, and the Libertarian votes to Trump. The Libertarians got almost 4 percent of the votes, and the Green Party almost 1 percent. With that breakdown, a popular vote might have been even closer than the actual election results.
It is highly unlikely that we will ever see a direct election of our president, but we ought to at least think of the consequences of different proposals before we alter the process.