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Should we change how we elect presidents?

By Paul Sracic, Special to CNN
  • The National Popular Vote plan is gaining traction nationwide, says Paul Sracic
  • The plan would initiate direct popular elections of U.S. presidents, he says
  • This approach, while intended to be democratic, is risky and problematic, Sracic says
  • Sracic: If there were four major candidates, one could win with only 26% of the vote

Editor's note: Paul Sracic is chairman of the Department of Political Science at Youngstown State University in Ohio. His most recent book is "San Antonio v. Rodriguez and the Pursuit of Equal Education" (University Press of Kansas).

(CNN) -- A political movement is under way which, in the words of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, could result in "the most radical transformation in our political system that has ever been considered."

Moynihan spoke those words in 1979, during a Senate debate over a proposed constitutional amendment calling for the direct popular election of the president. While that amendment failed, the goal of having the people vote directly in presidential elections has been resurrected in the form of the National Popular Vote plan. Just last week, California's legislature passed NPV into law, and it now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature.

The Electoral College system, which passes the votes of the people through individuals called electors, has been a source of controversy in the United States for decades. Indeed, it seems that nearly every new Congress brings with it a proposed amendment calling for the elimination of this indirect election system. The NPV plan, however, is different. It is not a constitutional amendment, and it retains the basic form of the electoral system.

Under NPV, states approve an interstate compact agreeing to give all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. Since it was launched in 2006, the campaign for NPV has moved consistently forward, aided by the support of prominent politicians such as former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tennessee.

The compact goes into effect once enough states sign on to total an Electoral College majority of 270 votes. The addition of California will leave the NPV plan just a hair shy of half of that total. Seven states and the District of Columbia have already signed on.

How would NPV work? Let's use California as an example.

Assume that in the next election President Barack Obama receives more votes in California than whoever wins the Republican nomination. If NPV is in effect, Obama would not necessarily be awarded California's 55 electoral votes. If the Republican candidate captured more of the popular vote nationwide, then he or she would be given those 55 electoral votes, regardless of the vote in California.

Sound undemocratic? Well, according to NPV advocates, this is actually a more democratic way to choose a president. Those who support the NPV plan emphasize the current system's alleged propensity to produce "wrong-winner" elections. By this they mean elections where the winner of the popular vote fails to win the Electoral College vote, thus losing the election.

This is what happened in 2000, and in the eyes of NPV proponents it was not a rare event. The NPV website states that the present system has a "failure rate of 1 in 14." That ratio is arrived at by dividing the 55 elections held between 1789 and 2004 by the four "wrong-winner" elections that occurred in 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000.

But in 1824, six states chose their electors through their state legislatures and did not conduct a popular vote. Therefore, 1824 was not really a "wrong-winner" election, since there was no uniform national popular vote taken in that year by which to arrive at a "right winner." If 1824 is excluded, a wrong-winner election is likely to happen only once every 74 years.

Beyond the actual data used to support the claim, the term "wrong winner" is itself problematic. It assumes that the candidate who lost should have won, if only we counted the "correct" votes instead of those cast by electors. This is a compelling argument, until you begin to consider how elections actually take place.

Right now, presidential campaigns focus their attention mostly on the so-called swing states, where the vote could go either way, ignoring a good portion of the electorate. The consequence is that the popular vote totals in any election are not what they might have been had the candidates known they would have to maximize their nationwide vote in order to win.

Of course, NPV supporters argue that it is not right for presidential campaigns to focus on only the voters in swing states. But under the NPV plan, large traditional swing states such as Florida and Ohio would remain important simply because of their large populations. The difference would be that candidates would now have to reach out to swing voters in big non-swing states like California and Texas while turning out their base nationwide. Presidential campaigns would become much more expensive, and fundraising that much more important.

And there are other potential problems. The NPV plan requires a winner to secure only a plurality rather than a majority of the popular vote. While it is true that a majority of the popular vote is not required now, the current system requires that, at minimum, pluralities be achieved in at least a dozen states holding distinct elections.

Under NPV, the necessary plurality could be confined to a few states, or a single region of the country. Multiple regional or even favorite-son candidacies would be encouraged, and each new candidacy would increase the likelihood of one of them receiving a majority of the electoral votes (courtesy of the NPV compact) while capturing a very low percentage of the overall vote. If there were four major candidates in the race, victory could be achieved with just over 25% of the popular vote.

The bottom line, to borrow from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is that there are too many "known unknowns." Is it worth the risk to remedy an ill-defined problem that historically occurs once in an average lifetime?

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Paul Sracic.