A bid to undermine the Electoral College


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday the 11th of July, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: a battle over one of America’s foundational ideas.

The founders set up an unusual way to select the country’s president. They didn’t want a simple democracy where majority tyranny could prevail. So they designed the Electoral College to address that risk. It meant presidential candidates could win the most votes nationwide and still lose the election. 

That’s actually happened five times in American history. John Quincy Adams was the first, and Hillary Clinton the most recent.

BASHAM: Some people say that violates the one person, one vote principle. One of those people is Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren. She explained her position at a recent event in Mississippi.

WARREN: Well, my view is that every vote matters. And the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting. And that means get rid of the Electoral College. [applause]

To change or abolish the Electoral College requires a constitutional amendment. That’s a long and arduous process. Ahead of the 2020 election, some states are taking a different approach. WORLD Radio’s Anna Johansen has the story.

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: In April, Oregon became the 15th state to join the National Popular Vote interstate compact—NPV for short. It’s a pledge between states to side-step the Electoral College and change the way the U.S. elects its president.

LOGOTHETIS: The goal of the national popular vote compact is really to have our presidency be reflective of the will of the people.

Georgia Logothetis is the assistant director of Common Cause Illinois.

LOGOTHETIS: The electoral college is undeniably broken. If you asked the average person on the street, you know, if the majority of the people in a, in a country vote for a certain person for president, should that person be president? Almost everybody will say, yes, that makes sense. That sounds like democracy.

Right now, states give all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins in that state. Under NPV, that would change. States would give their electoral votes to whoever wins the national popular vote. That way, it’s guaranteed: Win the most votes across the country, and you win the presidency.

The NPV movement began in 2006, but it’s mostly limited to blue states, like Illinois and California. Opposition remains strong.

ENGLAND: I think that the national popular vote interstate compact is unconstitutional, although it’s, it’s a close case.

That’s Trent England. He’s with the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. He agrees the Constitution does give states the ability to allocate their electoral votes however they see fit. But he also believes NPV undermines the founders’ goal of indirect representation.

ENGLAND: We know that it violates the intent of the constitution on the Electoral College. I think that’s enough to make it unconstitutional. It certainly would be challenged and I’m hopeful that judges would strike it down.

Legal challenges aside, England says the compact creates other problems. With NPV, candidates might spend all of their time campaigning in densely populated cities. That means ignoring rural America.

ENGLAND: Just the way the Electoral College works, it also prevents candidates from winning based on really narrow coalitions. And, and that’s really what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016. She had this narrow, urban coalition and it turned out to be enough to get the most popular votes, but it wasn’t enough to win the electoral college.

England says that’s not a bug in the system—it’s a feature. It’s how the founders designed it. The goal was to protect voters in less populated states and force candidates to be national, rather than regional.

Georgia Logothetis agrees NPV could prompt candidates to focus on heavily populated areas. But she doesn’t see that as a problem. 

LOGOTHETIS: Yes, currently, we have densely populated areas, but the compact doesn’t mean that they’re going to have an outsize proportion of influence in who becomes president. They’re going to have a right size proportion in influencing who becomes president.

These state bills do not take effect until they collectively reach 270 electoral votes. Right now, the effort has 196, so it needs another six or seven states to join.

But even if advocates get them, there’s another big obstacle: Congress. It has to approve interstate compacts like this. Logothetis says the best-case scenario would be approval in time for the 2024 elections.

Several states are considering the compact, including Arizona, Florida, and Ohio. Nevada’s governor vetoed it in May.

But even for those states that have already joined, it’s not the end of the story.

PUGLIESE: After the governor signed the bill into law, we had petition signing events throughout the state.

Rose Pugliese is County Commissioner of Mesa County, Colorado. Colorado joined NPV in March, but Pugliese is already working to get out of it. She spoke to Colorado talk show Devil’s Advocate about this.

PUGLIESE: And literally when I pulled up for a 3:30 petition signing, at 3:20 there were lines of people wrapped around, we ran out of petitions in 45 minutes. 

Pugliese needs 125,000 signatures by August 1st. That would put the NPV question before Colorado voters in November 2020. Then, they’d do what Americans usually do: Vote.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen.


(AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a campaign stop in Peterborough, N.H., Monday, July 8, 2019. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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