TOPICS > Politics > Vote 2016

This system calls for popular vote to determine winner

November 6, 2016 at 1:55 PM EDT
Four times in U.S. history, the winner of the nationwide popular vote has lost the Electoral College and the general election. But a proposal called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would automatically allocate participating states' Electoral College votes to whoever wins the national popular vote. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

By Sam Weber and Laura Fong

DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: I think the state of Pennsylvania we’re going to win so big…

HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Wow, it is great to be back here in Raleigh…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Since their nominating conventions in July, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have made more than 90% of their campaign stops in just 11 so-called battleground states.

Of those visits, nearly two-thirds took place in the four battlegrounds with the most electoral votes — Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina. That’s because voters don’t directly elect the president…the Electoral College does.

A system enshrined in the constitution, each state has a share of the 538 electors roughly proportional to its population: generally, whoever wins a state gets all the electors.

AL GORE: Good evening…

HARI SREENIVASAN: But four times in U.S. history, including in the Bush-Gore race in 2000, the winner of the nationwide popular vote has lost the Electoral College…and the election.

Even without those anomalies, the current system rankles residents of states not anointed as “battlegrounds” and largely passed over by the candidates, because the states are perceived to be so safely in one party’s column…

JEFFREY DINOWITZ, (D) NEW YORK ASSEMBLY: The idea that a handful of states is where the election is taking place, while the vast majority of states are bystanders is crazy. What other democracy does it that way?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jeffrey Dinowitz is a Democratic state assemblyman representing part of the Bronx in New York City. He has championed legislation to change how we elect presidents.

It’s called “The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact,” and it would allocate participating state’s electoral votes to whomever wins the national popular vote. For example, if Donald Trump were to win the most votes nationally, New York, and every other state in the compact, would pledge its electors to him, even if he didn’t win those states.

So, the pact leaves the Electoral College in place — no constitutional amendment required — but essentially circumvents it and creates a direct national popular vote for the presidency.

JEFFREY DINOWITZ: We want every state to count, we want every individual vote to count, and we want the issues of our state and our communities to count as much as the issues in other states like Florida.

HARI SREENIVASAN: New York overwhelmingly adopted the legislation in 2014 with bipartisan support, joining nine other states and Washington D.C. All solidly Democratic.

Together, they have 165 electoral votes. But by design the compact won’t have an effect until it’s joined by states bearing a total of 270 — the majority needed to elect a president.

MICHAEL GIANARIS, (D) NEW YORK STATE SENATOR AND DEPUTY MINORITY LEADER: The problem is, this is something that sounds great, it’s well intentioned, but there are all sorts of unforeseen consequences that I don’t think have really been thought through.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Democratic State Senator Michael Gianaris represents part of Queens in New York City and opposes the National Popular Vote compact. He says the compact fundamentally changes a constitutional process and would disadvantage small states — something the founding fathers tried to avoid in the constitution.

MICHAEL GIANARIS: If you come to a system that’s purely based on popular vote, all you’re going to see is money being spent in the big media markets because that’s where the density is. Some of these bigger populations would then drive the attention to the exclusion of the rest of the country, and I don’t think that would be good either.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Gianaris also believes a national popular vote could leave out many Americans, since the number of electors each state has is based on its number of members of Congress… and that’s based on population, not eligible voters.

MICHAEL GIANARIS: The state’s Electoral College number includes, for example, children, it includes incarcerated individuals, it includes noncitizens, but who are here legally. Those people generally can’t vote in most instances, but they are represented when determining how many electors a state has. But when you’re determining purely based on who is turning out to vote on election day you lose that bit of representation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While only safe democratic states have joined the compact. Ironically, the Democratic Party seems to have a structural advantage in presidential elections under the current system.

JOSHUA TUCKER, NYU POLITICS PROFESSOR AND DIRECTOR OF THE JORDAN CENTER FOR THE ADVANCED STUDY OF RUSSIA: As long as California and New York are not competitive, and you throw in a few other big states, the Democrats start off with a big lead.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University and says that if a reliably Republican state like Texas — with the second most electoral votes — turned Democratic, the White House would become out-of-reach for the Republicans, and then they might be open to the national popular vote compact.

JOSHUA TUCKER: If you want to go to a naked political calculation, if politicians want to win elections, if political parties want to get their candidates elected President, they’re going to think about what sort of electoral system is going to allow them to better be able to do this. Normally, because this is in the Constitution, not statutory, we’re locked into this electoral system, the interstate compact has given a way to possibly get around that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: New York Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long came around to the idea of the National Popular Vote Compact after his own family said their votes for Mitt Romney didn’t matter in the 2012 presidential election.

MIKE LONG, CHAIRMAN, NEW YORK CONSERVATIVE PARTY: One of my own sons looked in my eyes and said, “Dad, it doesn’t make any difference. Romney’s not going to win New York.” I was deftly convinced I was on the right side of national popular vote then, because I believe it’s important that everyone votes.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Long believes that other conservatives will eventually support this approach, because there are republicans all over the country who feel their votes don’t matter.

MIKE LONG: I think there’s an awful lot of people feel they’re disenfranchised, that their vote doesn’t make any difference. If you live in Chicago and you happen to be, if you happen to be a conservative Republican, you feel that, in Illinois, I don’t have a chance to turn this around. If you’re a Democrat in Oklahoma, you probably don’t come out to vote because you don’t have a shot to carry the state for your favorite candidate, whoever that may be.

JOSHUA TUCKER: Once you get enough states to pass this law, then it doesn’t matter what the other states are doing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Professor Tucker sees one way that momentum in support of the National Popular Vote Compact could grow after this year’s election.

JOSHUA TUCKER: If Trump wins the election, there is a small but non-trivial chance that he would win the election without having received a majority of the popular vote. Without even seeing a plurality. If he was elected where he won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote, I think it would give a strong impetus to this move to national popular vote.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Still, even a compact between states totaling 270 electoral votes would likely be challenged in the courts, including whether it a compact like this is enforceable. But Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz is optimistic that a national popular vote can become a reality.

JEFFREY DINOWITZ: I think over time, more and more people are coming around to the point of view that this should happen. So there still is a ways to go. But I think that the more people look at this, the more support it gets. It’s not a partisan issue. It’s just not.