Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

How to Pick a President

Carol Veldman Rudie


July 15, 2011
by Carol Veldman Rudie

If you want to produce glazed eyes at a party, just begin talking about a need to change the system.  Any system.  The minutae of detail and the leap of imagination required to envision a different way of doing things has a way of causing a change in subject but rarely in system.

Increasingly, however, one type of system change is becoming the talk of politically savvy party-goers.  More and more people are beginning to understand that the method used to cast and count votes makes a big difference—not only because Candidate A might win rather than Candidate B, but also because voters get different messages about the value of their participation depending on the way in which they are asked to express their views.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the way we elect the President of the United States.  The Constitution mandates an Electoral College.  The number of electors is determined by adding up the number of senators and representatives sent to the US Congress by the states and the District of Columbia.  The people in each state, then, are not electing the president but the electors from their state who, in turn, cast their votes for president.

According to the Constitution each state has the right to determine the method by which it chooses those electors.  At one time, most state legislatures elected the electors, which meant that the people never voted for president at all.  However, in more recent times, state legislatures have used the mechanism of popular elections to determine the presidential slate favored by its people.  Legislatures then generally mandated (or assumed) that all of its state’s electoral votes would go to the winner of that election.  In other words, legislative voting was replaced by one of the most unfair of election systems: winner-take-all.

The problems with such a system have been obvious for a long time, and no more so than in presidential elections.  Several disenfranchizing trends result.  Candidates spend most of their time in states with big electoral numbers.  Campaigns work the so-called “swing states,” where voting patterns indicate an even match between the two major political parties, while states with a party plurality are paid scant attention.  Even states with very large populations are ignored if the winner-take-all voting system puts them securely in the “red” or “blue” column.   The result?  Voters in states whose electoral votes are not in play have no voice and little incentive to go to the polls, especially if they are in the state’s minority poltical party.  Voters in swing states have a correspondingly larger voice in a process that should instead ensure equitable representation.

A fix is not hard to find.  Either states should proportionalize their electorial votes to reflect the percentage of their voters’ support for each presidential slate.  Or they should adopt the National Popular Vote.  Under a bill currently circulating among various state legislatures and passed by 31 legislative chambers in 21 states, all of a state’s electoral votes would be cast for the presidential slate that received the most popular votes of all 50 states and DC.  This bill takes effect only after enough states have passed it so that their combined electoral votes constitute the 270 needed to elect a president.  In June, the Republican-dominated New York Senate became the latest legislative body to adopt the National Popular Vote.  The organization National Popular Vote maintains a comprehensive website that includes state-by-state summaries of the issue’s status.  

With federal constitutionality not at issue and with increasing understanding of the influence of “the system” on voter empowerment and participation, the National Popular Vote should receive more than a public discussion.  It deserves our support as part of our efforts to make our representative democracy’s election systems just.

—Carol L. Veldman Rudie is a board member of FairVoteMinnesota and is Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Center for Public Justice.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”