American Idol: Should We Elect Presidents By Popular Vote?

Eleven years after the 2000 election, politicians are finally trying to reform the electoral college. Reformers want the president to be chosen by national popular vote. A popular vote system would certainly be different. But would it be better?

Eight states and the District of Columbia have passed the National Popular Vote (NPV) bill. That's a law requiring that the states' electoral votes be cast for the winner of the national popular vote, no matter how the eight states themselves vote. But there's a condition: the law will not go into effect until states with a total of 270 electoral votes -- a majority of the Electoral College -- pass the NPV bill.

The states that have passed the bill so far have a total of 132 electoral votes. That's nearly halfway to a majority. They include some of the bluest states in the country: Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, Vermont and Washington, as well as California and D.C. None of those states (or D.C.) has voted for a Republican for president since 1988.

Is something partisan going on here? Not really, said California Gov. Jerry Brown when he signed the NPV bill last week. "It seems logical that the occupant of the White House should be the candidate who wins the most votes," Brown said. "That is basic, fair democracy."

A few days earlier, members of the Republican National Committee unanimously endorsed a resolution opposing NPV. One RNC member said, "The popular vote initiative is an attempt to solve a problem we don't have, but it will create problems we don't want."

Like what?

Republicans are concerned that, if NPV becomes law, presidential campaigns will focus on voters in major metropolitan areas in the blue coastal states and ignore the heartland. For a very good reason: the major metropolitan areas are where the voters are.

Right now, presidential campaigns give almost all their attention to voters in places like Chillicothe, Ohio, and Davenport, Iowa. Those voters are fortunate enough to live in battleground states. Everybody knows how New York and California and Texas will vote. The poor voters in those states don't get much attention. They miss out on all the great campaign ads and the traveling campaign circuses. All they can do is give money.

As it happens, more than five million brave Californians voted for John McCain in 2008. Nobody paid attention to them because McCain didn't have a chance of carrying California (he got 37 percent of the California vote). But those 5 million voters would matter a lot if the national popular vote determined the outcome. Then it would make sense for Republicans to spend time and money in California.

The presidential campaign would suddenly shift from battleground states to major metropolitan areas. Fairer, perhaps, but much more expensive. Moreover, nineteen of the country's 25 largest metropolitan areas are in states Obama carried in 2008. That's why Republicans don't like the idea.

The National Popular Vote would also encourage more independent candidates to run. Remember Ross Perot in 1992? He got 19 percent of the vote but did not carry a single state. If the ability to carry states didn't matter anymore, Perot would have gotten a lot more votes. In a race with five or six independent candidates, a President could be elected with far less than a majority. There might have to be a run-off before the electoral votes are cast. Imagine -- TWO presidential elections!

In a joint letter opposing the National Popular Vote, Republican Governors Association chairman Rick Perry, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell raised questions about how to enforce compliance. "States could easily withdraw from the pact in any election in which their favored candidate was expected to lose," they warned. "Close national elections could produce contentious recounts in every state, and litigation would be rampant."

Probably the biggest problem in enforcing compliance would be this: voters would object if the law directed their state's electors to vote for a candidate who didn't carry their state. Imagine what would have happened in 2004 if Californians voted for John Kerry and the law required that the state's electoral vote be cast for George W. Bush. Voters outside California would be determining how California's electoral vote is cast. Outrageous! That's a law that wouldn't last very long.