It’s been six months since the divisive 2016 election, and America's ritualistic, obligatory bitching about the Electoral College is already fading in the face of nascent policy battles.
That's the cycle: Every four years we rend our garments only to have off-season outcries over new executive orders or legislation distract us before we can achieve any kind of major structural changes. By the time another general election rolls around, we're back where we were — watching John King baffle CNN viewers with his fancy maps.
And, yet, a way out of the electoral chaos is not that far off, thanks to the quiet, wonky National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Though the initiative gets sporadic media coverage, it is hardly general public knowledge. It should be.
The simple compact proposes that states pledge their electoral votes "to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.” This rather brilliantly obviates the need for an amendment dumping the Electoral College from the Constitution.
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would only take effect when a sufficient number of states sign on such that their combined electoral votes constitute the magic 270 we've always needed to elect a president.
So far 165 electoral votes from 11 states have been secured. Of the remaining 105 required, 82 are seriously in play, having passed at least one legislative chamber in 10 states. Optimistically, we're 23 new electoral votes away from ridding ourselves of the Electoral College. It's something that could be managed through strategically pressuring a handful of state representatives.
For any cynic who thinks the people can’t course-correct our own disenfranchisement, this is about as feasible as it gets.
While I’m not sure either party will be putting up any worthy presidential candidates in 2020, instating the popular vote is about more than the short-term apocalyptic scenarios most operatives are freaking out over now. They’re resisting Trump, mending fences between Hillary supporters and Bernie Bros, navigating the collapse of the old Republican power structure, and preparing for the emerging maybe-fascist world order. These are all important things, but they will only exacerbate if people continue to believe their votes don’t count. A lack of participation empowers fringe-y power grabs. If we have four years to derail the current train wreck our society is quickly becoming, shouldn’t we force the political machine to campaign differently and include all of us? Especially if the infrastructure to do it is so close to implementation?
“In a representative democracy you need a critical mass of voters who are engaged and informed,” says David Burke, founder of the civic engagement organization Citizens Take Action. “The Electoral College disincentivizes voters in a majority of states to get involved with or vote in the presidential election. Most states are safe states and the outcome is preordained.”
The NPVIC notes that 94 percent of campaign events in 2016 were conducted in just 12 states. Most of America is being ignored — including the people the Electoral College purportedly safeguards.
“A common argument against fixing the Electoral College is that it protects small states, but the evidence based on where presidential candidates spend time and money indicates otherwise,” Burke says. “Fourteen of the 15 smallest states by population are ignored like the big ones because they’re not swing states. Small states are safe states. Only New Hampshire gets significant attention. In terms of protecting small states, it’s a myth.”
Unfortunately, without widespread public knowledge, the greatest obstacle to implementing the popular vote despite this incredible strategic position is probably the impulse of political activists to conflate civic responsibility with their partisan objectives.
“Being partisan is how you get attention, clicks, or raise money,” says Burke. “A lot of organizations and nonprofits have an incentive to be anti-Trump, for example. That gets attention initially but won’t result in success. The popular vote movement has to be detached from the last election. It has to be about the civic process, and doing something about why the Electoral College in its current form is undemocratic, inequitable, and depresses voter turnout. It requires going against short-term self interests.”
There’s significant resistance from the political class when it comes to drastically overhauling the familiar processes that keep them in power, but how many electoral cycles do we have to witness where voters report low enthusiasm? Surely, some bold, perhaps even non-traditional candidates would see an opportunity to run a new kind of campaign for all Americans. We can’t rely on befuddled swing state moderates caught between their wing-nut neighbors to appoint our leaders anymore.
Perhaps we increasingly see a divided America because we are suppressing the majority.