A new poll from Gallup confirms once again the widespread support for amending the Constitution to provide for presidential election by popular vote. For those unacquainted with the issue, in the United States, the president is not elected by direct popular vote. Rather, the framers of the Constitution saw fit to create a college of electors, appointed and regulated by their respective state legislatures, to choose the president by majority vote. While the procedure for the selection of electors has been modified in the intervening 200 years — for example, electors are now nominated by state political parties and elected on Election Day — the gist is largely the same. Currently, 48 states and Washington D.C. allocate their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis; only Maine and Nebraska delegate part of their votes on a district-by-district basis.
Gallup has been tracking the level of support for an amendment to establish direct presidential election since 1967, when they found that 58 percent would approve and only 22 percent would disapprove. Approval peaked in 1969 at 80 percent and has since leveled off to 62 percent according to their polling this year. In 1970, a popular resolution to amend the Constitution passed the House but died after a successful filibuster by small-state and Southern Senators.
The original logic behind the college is that the President is not elected to govern a people, but a federation of states, each with their own right to an equal place at the table. According to its modern proponents, it has a number of other benefits. For instance, it prevents candidates who are regionally popular in densely-populated areas but unknown elsewhere from winning. Other touted advantages include its ability to negate factors like bad weather that affect voter turnout within a state. It also skirts the issue of candidates ignoring minority groups, since these groups often mean the difference between winning a majority of the statewide popular vote, and thus all of the electoral votes, and receiving no electoral votes at all. And in the end, the college has had a pretty decent record of ensuring that the winner of the popular vote has won the general election.
However, many of these concerns are no longer valid, if they ever were. Ease of communication and travel make it an economical use of time to reach out to all corners of the country. Members of several minority groups can testify to the fact that they have been, and continue to be, categorically ignored or even used with an electoral college system. And I don’t think I have to remind people how even though it has failed to move the popular winner into the White House “only” four times, indirect election can still have disastrous consequences when it does fail. Ultimately, none of these factors matter if we as a country wish to adhere to the principle of “one person, one vote.”
Ironically, while small states are often considered to have the greatest interest in preserving the status quo, under the Electoral College system, citizens of larger states may have the greatest voting power, or probability of casting the deciding vote.
Some say the index used to reach this conclusion, the Penrose-Banzhaf Power Index (BPI), may not be the most realistic way of modeling an election; the BPI assigns each voter a probability of one-half of voting for either candidate. Regardless, a 2002 study by Gelman, Katz and Tuerlinckx at the Institute for Mathematical Statistics reveals that, while the relation between state population and voting power is not nearly as simple as the BPI-model suggests, one thing is clear: dividing voters into “coalitions,” e.g. states, causes voting power to vary drastically. The only way to ensure that each vote has the same power is a direct election. Conveniently, this system also maximizes the average voting power.
For many people, this is a no-brainer: we cannot simultaneously keep the Electoral College and claim to have democracy. Unfortunately, widespread belief in the near-infallibility of the Founding Fathers is at least partly responsible for preventing progress. What people who hold on to this notion must realize is that the Framers had flaws: stunning hypocrisy and a belief in their superiority as rich, white men, for example. While not infinitely so, many of them were indeed wise. Hence, foreseeing that social mores and technology would change, they granted their future countrymen the opportunity to amend the Constitution as needed. Let’s take them up on that offer and move toward real democracy.