A clear and present danger: The national popular vote plan

Ken Blackwell & Robert Morrison Senior Fellows, Family Research Council
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“Revenge is a dish best served cold” is an old French expression. Maybe American politicos ought to pay attention to the wisdom of our overseas friends. We’ve had almost 11 years to contemplate the 2000 election. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore resolved that election some 43 days after Election Day. It was a wrenching experience for millions. Still, we can take pardonable pride in the fact that the mail went out every day, no tanks rumbled through our nation’s capital and we didn’t have any fistfights in Congress over the result.

Even so, some folks are still hopping mad over that result and they blame one of our core institutions: the Electoral College. It’s no accident that the first six state legislatures to approve laws to effectively do away with the Electoral College were in Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois and Washington. These states went solidly for Al Gore in 2000 and many of the liberals who dominate those legislatures have not forgiven or forgotten the debacle of Election 2000. That election saw vote canvassers in Miami holding up partially punched ballots to discern the difference between “hanging chads,” “dimpled chads” and “pregnant chads.”

Vengeful liberals believe they can undo the Electoral College without amending the Constitution, which gives each state the power to appoint “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” a number of electors equal to the state’s combined number of representatives and senators. Liberals want state legislatures to direct those electors to vote for the candidate who wins the national popular vote (NPV).

How would this have changed the election of 2000? If, for example, Ohio and Florida then had liberal majorities in their legislatures, those legislatures could have ordered Ohio’s 21 electors and Florida’s 25 electors to vote for Al Gore, whose national popular vote total of 50,999,897 (48.4%) was more than half a million votes ahead of George W. Bush’s 50,456,002 (47.8%).

Taking away 46 electoral votes from George W. Bush’s bare majority of 271 would put him at just 225. Al Gore would have picked up those 46 electoral votes to place him at 312, well more than the 270 electoral votes needed to win a majority and get elected.

Liberals are inviting a constitutional crisis. The Constitution gives the states the power to determine how the electors shall be chosen. Does it also give states the right to tell those electors who to vote for?

But, worse, this attempt to undo the founders’ brilliant idea — the Electoral College — is a danger to the country. It threatens our peace and stability as a nation.

Most often, the Electoral College functions to amplify the popular votes of the American people. In the vast majority of our presidential elections, that’s what it has done. Take Bush and Clinton in 1992. Bill Clinton won only 43% of the popular vote, hardly a mandate. But he carried the Electoral College with a massive 379 electoral votes to George H.W. Bush’s 160. Many worried about a Clinton presidency, but no one seriously disputed his election. Similarly, the election of 1988 produced a lopsided Electoral College win for the senior Bush. He beat Michael Dukakis 426 electoral votes to 111, although the popular vote was just 53% to 46%.

The Electoral College makes sure that the voices of small states are heard. But it also empowers minority voters in large states. Take 1884 as an example. The Republican nominee that year was House Speaker James Gillespie Blaine. He ran on a platform that assailed the Democrats as “the party of Rum, Romanism (Catholics), and Rebellion (Southerners).” Blaine, who was from Brooklyn, New York, was unlikely to carry any states in the Solid South, but the attack on Catholics — which Blaine did not make but to which he did not object — cost the GOP nominee the states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Each of these states had thousands of immigrant voters, many of them Catholic.

The Electoral College is not a perfect system. But NPV is a dangerous idea, inviting massive voter fraud and a dangerous division in our country. Toying with the Electoral College threatens the legitimacy of our constitutional republic. We all remember how embittered liberals sought to deny the legitimacy of President Bush’s 2000 election. Try to envision Florida recounts in every precinct.

Let’s remember, the worst election dispute in American history was over the 1860 election, when Americans were divided into blue states and gray states over the election of Abraham Lincoln. No one wants that clash again. NPV could tear us apart.

Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison are Senior Fellows with the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.