Fueled by frustration over the last presidential election, New Mexico legislators are considering a plan to change the process. The proposal is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or NPV. It promises to “make every voter equal,” but NPV would destabilize our political order and put minority rights at risk. Frustration with an election outcome is a bad reason to reject the current Electoral College process.
NPV’s founder, John Koza, is a California computer scientist who also invented the scratch-off lottery ticket. In fact, Koza spent the ’80s lobbying states to adopt lotteries. He wins on every ticket, and he has invested his winnings in lobbying for NPV.
Most people think it would take a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College, but Koza’s plan is clever. NPV would leave the current structure, but have state governments ignore how their own people vote in presidential elections. Instead, the state would try to collect the vote totals from every other state, add them up and appoint presidential electors based on the total.
There are a lot of practical and legal problems with this. NPV could require a national recount, but is silent on how it would work. In fact, it says almost nothing about the new disputes that might arise between states or voters. A state could try to join or leave the compact in order to game the results (NPV only takes effect if passed by enough states that they together possess 270 or more electoral votes—the majority needed to control the outcome). NPV claims to limit such manipulation, but the provision is probably unenforceable.
The US Constitution requires that interstate compacts have the consent of Congress. Koza claims this is unnecessary, pointing to old court cases. But those compacts were about water rights and milk prices, not the presidency. For this one reason alone, NPV is likely to be thrown out by the courts.
The Electoral College, on the other hand, has been around since the first election of George Washington. It lets the people of each state register their will in each presidential election. Winning requires more than just a national plurality. It requires a majority of electoral votes, which comes from achieving enough support in enough states across the country. This helps to provide political stability and safeguard minority rights.
Consider American politics after the Civil War. Democrats were powerful in the South, with massive support among whites and tragically effective vote suppression directed at newly freed slaves. Republicans were strong in the North, but not with the same overwhelming majorities. This meant that Democrats had a chance at winning the national popular vote, but not the Electoral College—in fact, this was the result in 1876 and 1888.
Democrats had to moderate, to reject the most extreme elements of their Southern coalition in favor of winning new voters—especially Catholic immigrants—in northern cities. The Electoral College prodded the Democratic Party away from regionalism and back toward being a national coalition.
The current Electoral College system has served our diverse nation well. Just like buying a lottery ticket is a poor strategy for building personal wealth, buying into the claims of National Popular Vote would put much at risk for very uncertain results.