Embrace the popular vote, restore faith in US democracy

Should the electoral college be abolished?
Should the electoral college be abolished?

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    Should the electoral college be abolished?

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Should the electoral college be abolished? 03:00

Story highlights

  • Charles Kaiser: Dropping traditional Electoral College system could produce new faith in the future of American democracy
  • A popular vote-based model for the presidential election would mean true national campaigns, he says

Charles Kaiser is author of "1968 In America," "The Gay Metropolis," and "The Cost of Courage." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)There is a real chance that we have just held the last presidential election that will ignore the results of the national popular vote.

Most people believe the mechanism for electing a president can only be changed through a constitutional amendment, an extremely cumbersome process that requires the approval of two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate, as well as the approval of three-quarters of all the states. (Amendments can also be adopted by a constitutional convention, but one hasn't been held since the founding of the republic.)
    Charles Kaiser
    But the truth is, a decade ago, a computer scientist named John Koza -- one of the inventors of the scratch-off lottery ticket -- came up with an ingenious way to institute the election of presidents through the popular vote, without touching the Constitution.
    This week, as Hillary Clinton's lead in the popular vote continued to grow, the fury of her supporters over this apparent unfairness fueled huge new interest in Koza's plan.
    Koza's solution is possible because the Constitution specifies that state legislatures can decide to choose presidential electors any way they want to. Koza proposed an interstate compact, enforceable through the impairments clause of the Constitution.
    The compact says that every state that adopts it will appoint electors who promise to abide by the result of the national popular vote, as soon as enough states are participating to cast 270 votes -- the number needed to elect a president. Between 2007 and 2014, 10 states and the District of Columbia, with a total of 165 votes, adopted the compact.
    What makes this progress especially remarkable: less than 100 people have been actively involved in the campaign to make this fundamental change in our electoral system.
    And Koza has a quick reply to those who think that depending on the popular vote would produce new uncertainty about the outcome of each election. Koza says the larger the pool of voters, the less likely a recount becomes -- and his model predicts just one recount every 740 years because of the size of the national presidential popular vote.
    Just about every other conceivable objection to the plan has been addressed in an 800-page book, "Every Vote Equal," which can be downloaded for free.
    "This is like a scratch-off solution," said Hendrik Hertzberg, the New Yorker political writer, "because we don't touch the Constitution and we don't abolish the Electoral College. Constitutional amendments are extremely hard to do -- and undo. So another advantage of this approach is, we can try it for a couple of cycles, and if we don't like it, we could easily repeal it."
    Hertzberg is a fierce liberal and a powerful advocate of this plan, but the idea of a popular vote-based approach has broad bipartisan support, including from Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich.
    One of the main attractions of the reform is that it would mean that we would once again have true national campaigns, with candidates focusing on all 50 states, instead of just the handful of swing states like Ohio that have decided many of the recent presidential elections.
    "You might think Republicans would be opposed because they've benefited from the current system in two of the last five elections," said Hertzberg, referring to 2000 and 2016. But he noted that one of Donald Trump's tweets this week suggested that he might not be opposed to the new system: "If the election were based on total popular vote," Trump tweeted, "I would have campaigned in N.Y. Florida and California and won even bigger and more easily."
    Pat Rosenstiel is a lifelong Republican, the owner of a branding company and the senior national adviser to the National Popular Vote, which is the formal name of the effort. He says interest in it has exploded since November 8.
    "We usually get two or three people a day using our website to send letters to their legislators in favor of the plan," said Rosenstiel. "But since the election, 100,000 letters have been sent to legislators across the country."
    "I'm increasingly confident that the compact will be in effect for the 2020 election," Rosenstiel said. "But that requires every citizen who wants reform to take the appropriate action, which is to write or call or email their state legislator -- and demand the change."
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    The progressive news site, Daily Kos, reported Wednesday that majorities of both branches of the Oregon Legislature favor joining the compact. It has only failed to come to a vote, the site says, because of the opposition of Senate President Peter Courtney, who apparently thought the proposal might reduce the influence of smaller states.
    In a fundraising email to its members this morning, Daily Kos said that getting the compact adopted in Oregon is one of its top priorities. The organization said it had collected 1.25 million signatures in support of the national effort for the compact.
    At a moment when millions of us are in despair about the direction of our country, the quick adoption of this fundamental change could produce new faith in the future of American democracy.
    We need that right now, more than ever before.