Part one of a two-part series looking at the Popular Vote Pact and its potential implications for our American constitutional republic.
The Connecticut state legislature recently voted to join what is known as the Popular Vote Pact. Along with 10 other states and the District of Columbia, Connecticut has agreed to award its Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote in presidential elections, regardless of which candidate is chosen by the majority of Connecticut voters. Such a system would, effectively, initiate the demise of the United States as a federal republic and replace that system of government with direct democracy – the very thing the Founding Fathers feared and from which they attempted to insulate their new nation.
Amazingly, this movement is going largely unnoticed by Americans. It is nothing less than a tectonic shift that will, if implemented, utterly transform the political landscape of America. It could, perhaps, even lead to the break-up of the United States, since it would result in one group of states imposing their collective will upon those declining to participate in the system.
Direct Democracy Vs. Republic and Other Questions
The Popular Vote Pact demands closer examination. The idea of the pact goes to the very heart of political philosophy. It raises a host of questions that cry out for answers from the people, not just from the political class. Why does the U.S. function as a republic at all? Why is a direct democracy a better idea – or a worse idea? Would the 50 states even survive as separate political entities? What, indeed, is the point of statehood at all if such a system were to be adopted? Also, how would an election, decided by national popular vote, change the way presidential campaigns are conducted?
These are not the only questions people will have about this proposed change. Some will ask whether the Popular Vote Pact is even constitutional and the answer to that question is not quite as simple as it first appears. Perhaps the most urgent question is what the pact will mean for the immediate future. That is the easiest question to answer and is, therefore, the best place to begin. The short answer is that, as things stand today, the pact does not affect future elections. To understand why that is, we must examine the nature of the Electoral College.
How the Popular Vote Pact Affects the Electoral College
The republican system of government practiced in the U.S. is designed to ensure that each state is represented in Congress and that each state gets to participate in the choosing of a president. The mechanism formulated by the Founding Fathers to facilitate these two avenues of enfranchisement is entirely rational. Every state is represented at the federal level by two Senators and, additionally, by a number of Representatives determined by the size of the state’s population. To choose a president, each state has a number of electors equal to the number of its Representatives plus the two Senators. The electors of the 50 states, collectively, form the Electoral College.
The whole system is fluid to take into account the constant changes in population. This fluidity was built into the U.S. Constitution. The basic structure was laid out but the numbers themselves – the numbers of representatives and electors from each state – was not predetermined. Although Article I Section 2 of the Constitution dictates a specific number of representatives for each of the existing states, it acknowledged that these numbers would change in future years. The only constant is that each state sends two Senators to Congress, ensuring that there is always an even number of Senators which allows for an exact 50-50 split in any vote. The Vice President, as head of the Senate, then casts a deciding vote when necessary.
According to present-day totals of Representatives and Senators, there are 538 electors who cast votes for a president and vice-president. That number is equal to the 435 Representatives, 100 Senators and, for the purposes of presidential elections, an additional three electors from the District of Columbia. Thus, a candidate needs a majority of 270 votes to be elected president.
So, how is this lesson in basic civics relevant to the question of how the Popular Vote Pact could affect future elections? The answer is that since a presidential candidate requires 270 electoral votes to win, we can see that the pact is irrelevant until the states participating in it, collectively, command at least that number of votes. Without at least 270 electoral votes, the whole premise of a national popular vote is rendered impotent, since the outcome of the election can still be determined by states not participating in the pact.
The ten states within the pact, along with the District of Columbia, command a total of 172 electoral votes. Should enough additional states join the pact to reach the 270-vote threshold, they will automatically award all votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote. Such a move would determine the next president and render the voting decisions of all other states moot.
All but two states currently use a ‘winner-take-all’ system, in which the state awards all of its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes in that state. The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska. Supporters of the Popular Vote Pact argue that this system of awarding electoral votes essentially disenfranchises those who voted for the losing candidate in their respective state. Thus, Republican voters in Democrat-dominated California have no direct say in the outcome of the election, since all of California’s electoral votes will go to the Democratic Party candidate. Democrat voters in a state where the Republican is assured victory are likewise sidelined.
The Implications for States and Voters
The Constitution gives the states the authority to decide how they determine the distribution of electoral votes to presidential candidates. Therefore, the pact is not, on the face of it, unconstitutional. There are, however, major implications to removing the electoral power from the states and placing it directly in the hands of the people.
Such a change would have a knock-on effect for a republic founded upon a Constitution structured to preserve a union of separate states. As self-contained political entities, all but the most populous states themselves would become less relevant, or entirely irrelevant. The residents of those states would, in effect, be always governed by presidents elected not by them, but by other states.
This leads to questions of why the U.S. is a republic at all and why we should be wary of an electoral system that renders a majority of states powerless to choose our future leaders. It is also worth revisiting the Electoral College system to understand the real reasons behind one political faction’s desire to all but nullify it. The fact that every state in the pact – along with D.C. – votes Democrat in presidential elections is no coincidence.
These discussions, along with a look at how a popular vote system would radically alter the nature of political campaigns, will be explored in part II of this series.