For Immediate Release
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group
Imagine this scenario. It’s the morning of Nov. 7. The election returns are in. Mitt Romney is the clear choice of the American people. Across the 50 states, the tally shows he has outpolled Barack Obama by some 800,000 popular votes.
But wait: Don’t look for the Romneys to move into the White House Jan. 20. The Obamas will stay put for four more years.
And why? Popular votes are one thing. But electoral votes are another – and constitutionally, they’re the ones that count. Obama has 270 electoral votes. Romney has 268. Forget Romney’s popular vote victory. Obama’s re-elected.
For weeks, pollsters had been pointing to an anomaly – the nationwide popular vote moving to Romney, but Obama solidifying his hold on several “battleground” states. Now that scenario has played out. Romney’s captured such prizes as Florida and Virginia. But Obama, albeit by mostly narrow margins, has squeezed by in a few more, including heavily contested Ohio, Colorado and Nevada – just enough to push him over the top.
Suddenly America sees a repeat of the hotly contested 2000 election when a razor-thin popular vote margin in Florida delivered the presidency to George W. Bush – even though Al Gore led by some 600,000 votes in the nationwide tally. This time there are no butterfly ballots and hanging chads (and with luck not another U.S. Supreme Court decision blocking a recount). But the result is that the candidate most Americans favor with their vote is denied the presidency.
An Electoral College misfire is never likely – but always possible. It’s one of the potential outcomes emerging in sophisticated poll/trends analysis by such experts as the New York Times’ Nate Silver. And if it occurs, Silver’s analysis suggests the chances of Romney being the victim, winning the popular vote but losing the electoral count, is roughly three times as great as an opposite scenario in which Obama might win among the voters but lose the electoral count.
Logically, the 2000 debacle would have spurred efforts to amend the Constitution to substitute the popular vote for the arcane Electoral College method. Some voices for reform were raised. But on the Republican side, the visceral reading was simple: “The system serves us. Why even consider change?”
But now, in 2012, the shoe’s on the other foot. It’s the GOP that’s been burned. Its hope to toss Obama out of office has been scorched by the very system it wouldn’t consider changing.
Suddenly it would be crystal-clear for all: The Electoral College is an equal opportunity spoiler. For presidential contenders, it’s a mathematical crapshoot. It doesn’t inherently favor either party. It just makes America’s so-called leading democracy (remember all that talk about “American exceptionalism”?) an awkward failure in the eyes of our own people – and the world.
As for me, I’ve viewed the system with alarm for most of a lifetime. I targeted it in my first book – The People’s President: The Electoral College in American History – in 1968. I concluded that a direct vote of the American people was imperative to defuse the Electoral College misfire time bomb.
The 2000 election surely proved that danger. We’ll be lucky if 2012 doesn’t do this once more. Or end up in an electoral vote tie, which would, under our hopelessly outdated constitutional provisions, empower the House of Representatives to choose the president with every state (no matter what its population) having an equal vote.
The reform obstacle is the tortuously difficult course for constitutional amendments. But there’s an ingenious workaround: the proposed National Popular Vote compact. It would bind willing states to deliver all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes of citizens nationwide. The compact would go into effect when – but only when – states with votes constituting a majority of the Electoral College formally approve it.
The proposal is a breath of fresh air: the states agreeing to assure that the people’s vote for president actually wins.
To date, nine states representing 49 percent of the required 270 electoral votes have approved the compact. In most states, there’s been conservative opposition – perhaps believing the current system favors their party. But “no” votes have been pushed by ALEC – the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, which has recently gained notoriety for backing “Stand Your Ground” gun statutes and for a flurry of new state laws requiring voters to show government-issued photo I.D. cards, which critics say amounts to an outright voter suppression campaign.
Early on, ALEC urged state legislators to oppose the National Popular Vote, charging the measure would “render minority groups voiceless and empower densely populated and ideologically homogenous regions as well as radical fringe groups.”
I call that mumbo-jumbo obfuscation. Maybe we really need another Electoral College backfire to bring us to our senses. Sorry, Gov. Romney, if you’re the victim.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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