Five times the United States has elected a president and vice president with a minority of the national popular vote, the latest being Donald Trump and Mike Pence in 2016. That’s because of our Electoral College system, where in the end the only number that matters is 270: the share of electors from the 50 states and the District of Columbia that is needed to put a candidate over the top. Practically speaking, the Electoral College is here to stay. But there is a sensible option, and Michigan has an opportunity to help bring it closer to reality.
It is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia, which together have 195 electors, have signed on to it. Michigan can and should add our state’s 15 electoral votes to that total in this legislative session by passing House Bill 4156.
The compact’s concept is simple: a state agrees to award all its electors to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of the outcome in the state itself.
Article II, Section I states that “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of Electors … .” A state legislature has the right to determine how the electors shall cast their votes. Thus, our Legislature can determine that Michigan’s electors will as a matter of law cast their votes for the winner of the most popular votes, whether Democrat or Republican.
Opponents of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact argue that with the Electoral College the Founders sought to create a system that would protect rural areas from the tyranny of populous cities. That’s a romantic version that borders on myth. They were concerned that a populist tyrant could be chosen if the president was popularly elected. They simply did not trust citizens to make wise choices. Plus, agricultural states were wary of signing a constitution that put them at a disadvantage. That’s the reason the Constitution counted a percentage of slaves in a state’s population. Since then, by amendment, Black people and women have been granted suffrage. There was an attempt to create a more level playing field for smaller states, but in today’s world, the field is lopsided. In this century, twice the losers of the popular vote, Trump and George W. Bush, became president; two other times, only a small number of votes in two states could have changed the results.
What about the argument that smaller states would be ignored under direct elections? That is exactly what happens now. Presidential candidates campaign in swing states. In 2012, 2016, and 2020, 12 states received about 95% of general-election campaign events. In those three elections, California, our most populous state, received one visit because it’s reliably blue. Under the current system, 38 states are ignored after the primaries. Blue voters in Red States and Red voters in Blue states are disenfranchised by the current system.
Moreover, the current system discourages voting within states that are considered safely Democratic or Republican. Why bother when your vote is not going to affect the outcome. The compact gives every voter a stake.
The compromise system that was created to gather signatures on a Constitution to create a nation free from tyrannical rule is not working as it was imagined. Instead, it gives a radical minority outsized influence in political matters. It no longer protects minority views; rather, it gives unusual power to the far left and right. The pressure to appeal to a “base” no matter how fringe or dangerous is all about the need to get out the vote in swing states. The compact will increase the voting value of the majority of Americans, who are closer to the center than either end of the political spectrum. Thus, the compact has the potential to help a fractured America come together.
In recent polling by the Pew Research Center and Gallup, about 60% of Americans support an amendment to the Constitution so the candidate who receives the most votes for president wins the election. Democratic support is substantially higher than Republican support (possibly because Republican presidential candidates won twice in this century while losing the popular vote). Most constitutional experts see the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact as a constitutional alternative to an amendment abolishing the Electoral College. Amending the Constitution is extremely difficult: two-thirds of Congress must support the amendment, and then it must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. Practically speaking, such an amendment will not fly.
The vehicle through which Michigan could join the compact, House 4156, was introduced March 3 by Ann Arbor Rep. Carrie Rheingans. So far, it has 34 sponsors, all Democrats. They include almost all of the local delegation, but noticeably missing is Angela Witwer, a moderate Democrat from the 76th District in Republican-leaning Eaton County. We encourage her constituents who support the compact to let her know their views at email@example.com and (517) 373-0822. In a chamber where Democrats prevail by just two votes, Witwer’s support will matter.
Still, it is not out of the question that even some Michigan House Republicans will support the compact. A few former GOP members have endorsed it, including former Speaker Chuck Perricone, to whom we give the last word because he put it well in a hearing on HB 4156 before the House Elections Committee last month.
“It creates a rare opportunity in Michigan for Republicans, Democrats, progressives, conservatives, right and left, to come together in support of a simple but fundamental principle: The presidential candidate who receives the most votes should win.”
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