The controversial way America elects presidents is barreling toward a crisis point. A federal court ruling has spotlighted the confounding nature of the system, which twice in the last five elections put presidents into office against the wishes of the majority of American voters.
Under the Constitution, the voters who select a president every four years are, in fact, picking a party-chosen slate of electors pledged to that candidate. The presidential candidate who wins a state’s popular vote gets all its electors — except in Nebraska and Maine, which split the electors by Congressional districts. These electors formally select the president after Election Day passes. This mechanism solved two problems of 1789’s America that no longer plague the nation.
Mass, instant communication — of news, commentary and campaign rhetoric — means voters have no need to designate others to make informed choices, which was the argument Alexander Hamilton made in support of the Electoral College. The system also induced southern slave states to join the union by giving them power at a time when the more populous north would have dominated a national popular election.
Today, the Electoral College turns every presidential election into a contest for the same handful of closely divided battleground states. Voters in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the upper Midwest hold the power and get candidates’ focus. Deviating from this priority list, as Hillary Clinton did in 2016, means courting electoral doom.
A decade ago, Washington joined states working to modernize the system with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. It takes effect only if enough states join to control the 270 Electoral College votes required to elect a president. Each state’s Electoral College votes would then be awarded to the winner of the national popular vote. But only 15 states and the District of Columbia have joined the agreement, giving it just 73% of the electors needed.
While legislatures in other states debate signing on, an alarming confluence of events has thrown Washington law into conflict with a federal court ruling. In the 2016 election, a handful of electors schemed to game the College to block Donald Trump from office. They traded votes to push the selection for president into the then-Republican controlled House of Representatives. It failed, but repercussions are playing out anyway.
Washington fines its “faithless electors” and under a new state law, will cancel and replace their votes, joining nine states that already had such laws on the books. But the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this month found removing an elector’s vote illegal, reading the Constitution to say Electoral College voters can vote as they please. If the ruling withstands U.S. Supreme Court review, states would lose the Electoral College’s accountability mechanism and all electors would have carte blanche to ignore the people’s will.
From time to time, members of Congress attempt to abolish the Electoral College, but few get far. (Hillary Clinton promised to join this fight when she joined the U.S. Senate after the disputed 2000 presidential election, but never filed legislation.) Congress should step up to modernize the system. A place to start is to build on the Electoral College, which is enshrined in the Constitution and would be difficult to toss entirely. Instead, it should reflect the national popular vote.
Until then, Washington must champion the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact to other states so every vote in America can count the same. Washington has several nationally influential leaders in government; Gov. Jay Inslee has chaired the Democratic Governors Association, and Secretary of State Kim Wyman has chaired the Republican Secretaries of State Committee. Both should urge their peers to fight for the popular vote compact.