Is America Ready for the Popular Vote? A Discussion on American Electoral Reform

The Electoral College is an archaic institution, but the fundamental structure is still applicable in today’s world. That structure was comprised of the collective representation afforded to the Legislative Branch and a double majority system, which is intended to prevent demagogues from attaining office. The 2016 election will fundamentally check whether this later aspect works or whether the USA will indeed have a President with the attention span of a gnat and the communication skills of a 3rd grader without objection by an impartial body whose primary purpose is to reject demagoguery and elect those with the unique, requisite skills necessary to be the Executive of the United States of America. Those deficiencies, or character attacks (depending upon ideological perspective), directly contribute to a platform steeped in poor policy decisions such as withdrawing from TPP, which will disadvantage the US abroad in favor of China’s APEC, and rescinding Obama’s executive orders to improve energy efficiency, which will retard technological advancement and further increase the existential threat posed by climate change.

Still, the Electoral College isn’t wholly to blame, as explained in this thorough rundown of the institution. The most notable problem is the winner-take-all system that most states use to award electors, which effectively denies more than 60 million voters from attaining any electoral votes and, if unchanged, will likely to worsen.

Another criticism might point to the disproportionate representation afforded to states through the Senate. Our founding fathers had expressed concern over the issue. James Madison argued that a conspiracy of large states against the small states was unrealistic as the large states were so different from each other. Alexander Hamilton argued that the states were artificial entities made up of individuals, and accused small state representatives of wanting power, not liberty. Even still, state representation rarely affects the outcome of the election and certainly did not in 2016. Regardless of whether one favors the Electoral College, this article will attempt to present a viable popular vote strategy.

Direct Democracy or Populism

First, it is worth studying the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact since states do have the authority to determine how to award their electors and could effectively circumvent the Electoral College, but this solution may violate the Compact Clause of the Constitution. Let’s assume that this route is a dead end. If voters want to use a direct popular vote it would likely require a Constitutional amendment. However, there are many questions that would need to be resolved in using a direct popular vote. A simple solution would use a plurality vote, but this would be inherently unwise since Americans (and people in general) tend to lack the education and high-functional reasoning to make such decisions. First, consider that the arguably worst Presidents elected, according to a broad review from historians and the public at large, were elected during the early-to-mid 1800s when the literacy rates were rock bottom and the power to vote was extended to the common, working man. And today polls consistently find about a quarter of Americans think the sun revolves around the Earth; a fifth think they’ve been in the presence of a ghost; a third can’t name a single branch of government; almost half think white discrimination is as big a problem as black discrimination; a fifth doubt the safety of vaccines; and a fifth think Obama is a cactus. The list goes on and some of these should be taken with a grain of salt. However, since it typically only takes about a third of the voting (not actual) population to elect a President it would be a terrible idea to use plurality voting alone to determine the President. In fact, there is an interesting conclusion that follows from considering voter turnout and popular vote percentage:

No President ever received a majority of the vote.

The highest a President has ever achieved was Ulysses Grant (43%) and the lowest, excluding John Q. Adams (8%) (because not every state was using a popular vote system yet), was a four way tie between Bill Clinton (twice), Woodrow Wilson, and Donald Trump (25%). The American system has historically been one of minority rule — not majority rule.

In order to insure that a majority is attained, any direct popular vote proposal should seriously consider instituting mandatory voting, automatic registration (practically necessary for a mandatory voting system), and requiring a candidate to win a majority of votes. Registration ought to require proof of citizenship (and driver’s licenses are not adequate documentation for this purpose), and note that it is possible to alleviate voter suppression concerns by providing assistance with documentation recovery. These actions might sound undemocratic, but they serve to protect the general population from exceptional levels of stupidity. It would also be worth considering revising election day to consist of an entire week, be on a weekend, or institute nationwide voting by mail. However, there exists another problem inherent to a majority system: What if there is no majority winner because of third parties?

Solutions to this problem could take many forms. One more common solution is the use of Ranked Choice (RCV)/Instant-Runoff Voting (IRV) when a majority has not been captured. This system requires voters to rank candidate in order of preference and then defers to a voters second choice when their first choice does not present as a viable option for the rest of the voting population. However, RCV/IRV has its own problems and some advocates who study voting systems would probably be more inclined to suggest use of Approval Voting. This later system gives voters the options to vote for any number of candidates, but only in a binary sense.

Approval Voting (left) and Instant-Runoff Voting (right)

Even still, it is conceivable that such solutions would yield an election with no clear majority winner. At this point, the discussion devolves into more nuanced characteristics of many different voting systems and rather than continue it would be more advisable to follow prolific writers on election systems and the organizations whose mission it is to find more sustainable, responsible election systems.

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