Several readers have called my attention to the National Popular Vote movement, through which various states would agree to vote their electors as a block based upon the winner of the national popular vote:

Under the U.S. Constitution, the states have exclusive and plenary (complete) power to allocate their electoral votes, and may change their state laws concerning the awarding of their electoral votes at any time. Under the National Popular Vote bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538).

I am against the NPV initiative.

While states can decide for themselves how their electors are to vote, this initiative — which bypasses the usual constitutional amendment process — has disaster and uncertainty written all over it.  Here are some reasons, in no particular order:

  1. The NPV compact prejudices large population centers over the rest of the country.  One of the beauties of the current system is that it forces candidates to compete nationwide, not just on the coasts and industrial Midwest. This is not a partisan issue.  I think one could make a good argument that the current system usually favors Democrats, because Democrats are guaranteed a large bloc of electoral votes (all of the states which have signed on so far are heavily Democratic).  Nonetheless, our national cohesiveness is served by candidates having to compete in Nevada, Arizona, the Carolinas and elsewhere trying to pick up electoral votes which have more significance than the mere number of votes.  So on the merits, regardless of the procedure, I’m not convinced that the current system is broken and needs fixing.
  2. If successful, the constitution will have been usurped not because states cannot choose this method (they can), but because the method effectively eliminates the electoral system through a voting compact among the states holding an electoral majority rather than through the Congressional vote and the three-fourths of states needed to amend the constitution.  If we want a popular vote (and there are good arguments for and against), then let’s change the constitution to do away with the electoral system, rather than through this tortured hybrid in which states still vote electors but undermine that system through a block voting agreement.
  3. Recounts will be a disaster.  While the advocates say that statistically a recount would be less likely, if such an event took place, the following mess would result: “In event of a tie for the national popular vote winner, the presidential elector certifying official of each member state shall certify the appointment of the elector slate nominated in association with the presidential slate receiving the largest number of popular votes within that official’s own state.”
  4. The NPV compact moves the vote fraud issue nationwide; right now, frankly, vote fraud only matters in swing states, which can be more carefully monitored.  Under the NPV compact, vote fraud anywhere could be a tiebreaker in a close national popular vote.
  5. What is to prevent a state from backing out if it doesn’t like the person elected by the popular vote?  The compact provides as follows:  “Any member state may withdraw from this agreement, except that a withdrawal occurring six months or less before the end of a President’s term shall not become effective until a President or Vice President shall have been qualified to serve the next term.”  How will this agreement be enforced?
  6. This movement has taken place under the radar.  I had not heard about this until recently, even though it apparently has passed the legislature in my home state of Rhode Island.  A constitutional amendment requires a national debate, including a vote in Congress and a super-majority of states.
  7. There is at least superficial national support for a popular vote mechanism according to Gallup, so if the arguments in favor are so strong, proponents should go about it the right way.  But support for a popular vote mechanism is not the same thing as support for the NPV block voting compact.

The League of Women Voters has a guide to other opposing arguments.  The NPV website gives the arguments in favor.

While there are good arguments on either side of the NPV initiative, something about this smells bad.  A multistate block voting agreement is too cute by half, a back door way to accomplish what cannot be accomplished through the constitutional front door.

Before we tinker with the way in which the nation elects a president, and engage in what amounts to an experiment in block electoral voting, we need the type of national debate which has not taken place so far.