A League study of the presidential electoral process culminated in a 1970 position supporting direct election of the President by popular vote as essential to representative government. The League testified and lobbied for legislation to amend the Constitution to replace the Electoral College with direct election of the President, including provisions for a national runoff election in the event no candidates (President or Vice-President) received 40 percent of the vote. The measure, which passed the House and nearly passed the Senate in 1971, has been revived in each Congress without success. In 1997, the LWVUS again called for abolition of the Electoral College and for direct election of the President and Vice-President in testimony before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution.
The League has supported national voting qualifications and procedures for presidential elections to ensure equity for voters from all states and to facilitate the electoral process.
In February 2001, a memo was sent to the state and local Leagues outlining the League’s position on the Electoral College under the LWVUS position on Selection of the President.
The 2002 Convention voted to expand and update the position. The League came to concurrence on a new position in June 2004, which takes into account the entire presidential selection process and supports a process that produces the best possible candidates, informed voters and optimum voter participation.
The 2008 Convention voted to conduct a study of the National Popular Vote proposal, which would establish the popular election of the President through a compact among the states governing how they would cast their votes in the Electoral College. The 2010 Convention amended the national position to support the National Popular Vote compact as another method of selecting the President until such time as the Electoral College is abolished.
A Statement of Position on Selection of the President, as Announced by National Board, January 1970, Revised March 1982, Updated June 2004 and Revised by the 2010 Convention:
|The League of Women Voters of the United States believes that the direct-popular-vote method for electing the President and Vice-President is essential to representative government. The League of Women Voters believes, therefore, that the Electoral College should be abolished. We support the use of the National Popular Vote Compact as one acceptable way to achieve the goal of the direct popular vote for election of the president until the abolition of the Electoral College is accomplished. The League also supports uniform voting qualifications and procedures for presidential elections. The League supports changes in the presidential election system—from the candidate selection process to the general election. We support efforts to provide voters with sufficient information about candidates and their positions, public policy issues and the selection process itself. The League supports action to ensure that the media, political parties, candidates, and all levels of government achieve these goals and provide that information.|
The League strongly believes that the Electoral College should be abolished and not merely “reformed.” One “reform” which the League specifically rejects is the voting by electors based on proportional representation in lieu of the present “winner-takes-all” method. Such a system would apportion the electoral votes of a state based on the popular vote in that state. Instead of making the Electoral College more representative, such proportional voting would increase the chance that no candidate would receive a majority in the Electoral College, thereby sending the election of the President to the House of Representatives where each state, regardless of population, would receive only one vote. Election of the President by the House further removes the decision from the people and is contrary to the “one person, one vote” principle. The League also does not support reform of the Electoral College on a state-by-state basis because the League believes there should be uniformity across the nation in the systems used to elect the President.
Although the LWVUS has specifically adopted a position calling for the abolition of the Electoral College, a short review of the mechanics of that system of Selection of the President is helpful to an understanding of the National Popular Vote Compact.
The Electoral College is a process established by the founding fathers as a compromise between election of the President by Congress and election by popular vote. In short, the people of the United States vote for electors who then vote for the President and Vice President.
Each state is entitled to a number of presidential electors equal to its total representation in the House and Senate. The District of Columbia is awarded a number of electors equal to that of the least populous state.
The founding fathers designed this constitutional plan to promote several principles they considered important. One goal was to ensure that smaller states had a role in the election of the President. Secondly, the emphasis on the power of the state as contrasted to the power of the individual voter fostered the principles of federalism which are the core of the governmental process. Finally, the use of electors rather than popular vote assuaged concerns that the electorate was not competent or knowledgeable enough to be entrusted with the direct election of important government officials, such as the President and Vice President.
The electors are selected, according to the Constitution, in the “manner” designated by the state’s “legislature” (the Congress in the case of the District). At present, the “manner” chosen by every state is by popular election. Most of the states (and the District of Columbia) use a winner-take-all system, in which the candidate who receives a majority of the vote, or a plurality of the popular vote (less than 50% but more than any other candidate) takes all of the state’s electoral votes. In Maine and Nebraska, the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district wins an elector, and the remaining two electors are chosen based on the statewide vote.
On Election Day, the voters cast their ballots for electors, even though the names of the candidates for President and Vice President are often the names shown on the ballot. Each state’s electors meet forty days after Election Day, and the formal balloting for president takes place at those meetings.
Many different proposals to alter the presidential election process by amending the Constitution, including direct nation-wide election by the people, have been offered over the years. None have been passed by Congress and sent to the States for ratification. Under the most common method for amending the Constitution, an amendment must be proposed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the states.
The most compelling argument against the Electoral College is that it prevents the direct election of the President by popular vote and is, therefore, contrary to modern principles of representative government. Studies show that more than 70% of American citizens favor the election of the President by popular vote.
Beyond this basic theoretical objection is the very practical objection that the Electoral College system enables candidates who have not received the most votes cast by American voters to become President.
We have seen such an outcome five times in our history. The first time was the 1824 election which was won by John Q. Adams even though he received fewer electoral votes and fewer popular votes than Andrew Jackson. (Adams won the election in the House of Representatives, with 13 State delegations voting for him, seven voting for Jackson and three voting for Crawford. This happened because there were more than two viable candidates, and would have been a less likely outcome in a two candidate race.)
In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel J. Tilden by one electoral vote, becoming President despite trailing in the popular vote by a count of 4,288,546 to 4,034,311. In 1888, Benjamin Harrison beat Grover Cleveland with an electoral vote of 233 to 168, despite Cleveland’s popular vote margin of 5,534,488 to 5,443,892. Most recently, in the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush received fewer popular votes than Al Gore, but received a majority of electoral votes. The situation was almost reversed in 2004. Although President Bush received more than three million more popular votes than John Kerry, Kerry would have been elected President if Ohio’s electoral votes had been cast in his favor. That situation was reversed in 2016, when Donald Trump won in the Electoral College despite receiving three million fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton.
These circumstances have prompted much discussion on the advisability and feasibility of reforming our election process to eliminate the Electoral College and to elect the President by direct election. This conversation is not new. Over the past 200 years, according to the National Archives, more than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. Indeed, several joint resolutions were introduced as recently as 2009, but the proposals never made it out of committee.
*Portions of this background paper are from the LWVUS public policy positions reflected in the 2014-2016 program adopted by the 2014 convention of the League of Women Voters of the United States.