For the second time this century, our president-elect won the electoral vote without getting the most votes nationwide. This has prompted fresh debate about the electoral college system, which most Americans perceive as undemocratic. Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote and co-author of Every Vote Equal, advocates for a plan to change electoral college rules in states so that the candidate who wins the popular vote wins the presidency. He talks with Brooke about how this effort, called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, would make every state -- not just swing states -- relevant in general elections, and in turn transform how campaigns are run and how elections are covered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. For the second time already this century, our president-elect won the electoral vote without getting the most votes. Before the 2000 election, that had happened only three times, all in the 1800s. As of this writing, Hillary Clinton received hundreds of thousands more votes than Donald Trump, overall, a fact which has prompted a familiar debate.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We got to get rid of the Electoral College. That would be a good thing to do in a Constitutional Convention. This is an absurdity held over from slavery.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: - a renewed push forward to change, especially among Democrats, because they’ve been burned by the Electoral College twice in the past 16 years.
BOB GARFIELD: More than two-thirds of Americans favor a popular vote over an electoral one, but the Electoral College system, in which a group of people cast votes for president on behalf of the people in their states, is enshrined in the Constitution, so abolishing it would be tough. There is, however, a way around it. States could choose to award their electoral votes to the candidates who got the most votes nationally, effectively making the Electoral College vote and popular vote one and the same. This is an effort called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, and we’ll get to that in a little bit. But first, why does the Electoral College even exist?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, mainly because the framers of the Constitution couldn't agree on how the nation should choose the president. Should Congress make the pick or should the population have a say? So they punted the responsibility down to the states, granting them a number of electoral votes and the freedom to decide how to cast them. For several years, states took different approaches but eventually most settled on the one we know well, that the winning candidate in the state takes all the electoral votes.
Rob Richie is the executive director of the nonpartisan organization FairVote and co-author of Every Vote Equal. He’s an advocate for electoral reform and he says that the idea that the Electoral College prevents smaller states from being dominated by bigger ones is all wrong.
ROB RICHIE: Yeah, that’s an argument tied to the mast that the number of electors per capita is bigger if you're in a small state than in a big state. But the reality of what really gives your state power in the Electoral College really isn't that per capita number. It’s whether your state is one that the candidates compete in and actively secure votes. And that’s actually not tied to that small state map.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That is interesting. In other words, the Electoral College has a huge impact insofar as it creates swing states. [LAUGHS]
ROB RICHIE: Absolutely. And, in fact, there's about 35 states which now for four consecutive elections have been completely outside of campaign attention that really are just spectators to the presidential election. So we don't have a United States election for president, we have a swing state election for president, from the perspective of the campaigns.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. Let me bring up the second defense of the Electoral College, and that is essentially the electors are there to protect us from ourselves.
ROB RICHIE: [LAUGHS] Right. It’s a funny argument in that it was used early on in the first few years and then within ten years of setting up the system we had already gotten to this partisan reality where the electors were really expected to be rubberstamps for the people who wanted them to vote a certain way, right? So the idea of them as a deliberative body that would look at this winnowed field of candidates, choose someone, we just never did that.
These days, if someone did that, they’re called the faithless elector because they’re being faithless to what they’re supposed to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. Now, obviously, Hillary Clinton has won the popular vote and so we’re seeing petitions to abolish the Electoral College. But, as you say, it's baked into the Constitution, so that’s not gonna happen, right?
ROB RICHIE: Well, we always could change the Constitution, and I’m not gonna say that we can't. We have to have three-quarters of all states pass it, and that’s a challenge.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So instead of trying to change the Constitution, you back the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. What is it?
ROB RICHIE: So here’s the most simple aspect of it. We want to have the White House go to the candidate who wins the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC. So that's the goal and that's what happens once this is in place. Now, here's what happens to make sure it gets into place. States keep their electoral votes and they change the rule for governing how they award those electoral votes. So right now, most states give all their electoral votes to whoever wins the popular vote in their state. The new rule is they’re going to give all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote in all 50 states and DC. That's one change.
The second part of it is they don't want to do it on their own because that conceivably could have partisan consequences. They want to make sure that they're doing it in a way that guarantees that the national popular vote winner is always going to win, so the Interstate Compact is an agreement to wait to enact it until the number of states that have passed it can make it decisive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So basically, you need enough states to bring the total number of electoral votes to 270.
ROB RICHIE: Exactly. Once it hits 270 in the next election, it becomes activated. So it’s already passed in a number of states but, because it's not up to that 270 point, the current rules still govern what those states do. But once we hit 270, then we’ll have a national popular vote guaranteed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it’s been passed, I guess, in ten states and DC. How many electoral votes do you have so far?
ROB RICHIE: That’s 165 electoral votes in the participating states, so it’s 105 electoral votes away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Aha.
ROB RICHIE: And it’s been introduced in all 50 states. It’s passed state legislative chambers. And I think these kinds of debates that we’re having right now about the system and how it's working for us are the kinds of ones that ultimately are going to get us across the finish line because we want elections to be decisive and the current system can create this argument that it's not fair. And, you know, I think we, we want to have a system that people believe is fair.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Aren’t you essentially turning the Electoral College, without removing it, [LAUGHS] into a vestigial organ?
ROB RICHIE: Well, in a certain sense that happened ten years into its existence.
As soon as it no longer was a deliberative assembly that really picked people based on, you know, the electors’ own judgment and it just became a rubber stamp, it really wasn't what the Founders intended –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ROB RICHIE: - at that point, right? And people have wanted to have a popular vote for president for decades, and this is the way to get it to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you’ve said this has strong bipartisan support but aren’t the vast majority of the states, if not all of them, blue?
ROB RICHIE: In the wake of the 2000 election, there was a perception for many years that somehow this was a plan that would help Democrats because Gore won the popular vote and Bush won the electoral vote. The rational fact that you could look at the 2004 election and say, oh, that’s interesting, Bush won it, but if it had been a little closer he would have still won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote. You can actually show the numbers sort of reveal that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But that's not what happened.
ROB RICHIE: It wasn't as visceral, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this year, it's Hillary Clinton who’s won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College, which suggests that maybe the situation, as it stands, benefits Republicans.
ROB RICHIE: If there had been a popular vote for president, they would have just run a very different campaign. The fact that they zeroed in on four states and both campaigns spent half of their campaign energy on those four states and Trump won them all is a suggestion that at least he would have had a real equal chance, I think, to win a popular vote, if he’d been running for it. But you're right that there's that perception.
But I wanted to say this about the nature of the bipartisan support. There has been more and more Republican support, say when it passed New York State - the State Senate is run by Republicans. It passed the Arizona House this year with a Republican-run chamber and it passed committees in Republican- run states, like in Georgia and Missouri. So I'm hoping that this election actually doesn't divert attention from the core argument, which is that there’s all these states that get left out, whether they’re red or they’re blue. Our hope is that the sort of partisan energy that's being created by what's happening right now doesn't actually interfere with the trajectory that I was seeing, which is that this National Popular Vote plan was heading toward likely implementation by 2020.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me what the National Popular Vote Compact would have on the way we cover elections.
ROB RICHIE: One of the things I like about elections is it’s a chance for us as a people to get outside of some of the – sort of the niche conversations we have and have more of a collective conversation. And I think when they are devoting so much of – you know, more than 90% of their actual time, but also the polling that governs what they stress is also pitched toward those 9, 10, 11 states, we’re missing out on some of the really exciting things that are good about America that just happen to be associated with states that aren’t swing states.
You know, I think that there really would be sort of a different mix of stories. We would be hearing a little less about what the Ohio needs and interests are and, and more about what all these other states’ needs are, as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m thinking of the iconic red/blue map. I think what you’d get is sort of violets and purples, instead.
ROB RICHIE: Exactly. The reddest areas still have some Democrats and the bluest areas still have some Republicans. And that’s also one thing, I think, which would be great, is just an opportunity for those people, wherever they are, to feel connected to the choice of their leader.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you consider heading a movement for a National Simultaneous Primary Day?
ROB RICHIE: I am really intrigued by that proposal, but with one huge caveat, which is that we do it after we actually have all the state-by-state contests. Actively, you know, doing caucuses and primaries in every state would winnow in the field, but rather than having those contests decide it all, you would actually then have everyone on an equal basis. You know, maybe you’d learn something new about a candidate and you regret the vote you cast earlier.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So leave the primary system in place but then put another vote on top of it, so you get a chance to change your mind. [LAUGHS]
ROB RICHIE: That’s what I would do. Come together on a common day, first Tuesday in June or something, and pick the nominee.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, Rob Richie, what the heck are you gonna do about gerrymandering?
ROB RICHIE: [LAUGHS] Well, there’s an answer to that one too.
It’s to think outside the box, and if you think of the box in this case, it's the fact of districting itself, ‘cause as soon as you draw the district it’s gonna help some people and hurt other people because it’s winner take all. Erase some of those district lines. So let's go from, let’s say, Massachusetts, which has nine single-member districts, meaning one person represents each district across Massachusetts, and Democrats have won every single seat for more than two decades. You would then say, let's have three districts, each with three. So that would be step one. You’d have fewer districts with more people. And then there's methods of voting, like the rank choice voting system they just passed in Maine, which you –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Get to put your first choice and your second choice and your third choice and even your fourth choice.
ROB RICHIE: Yeah, you get – you get the freedom to do that. And when you do that, the way it works is that almost everyone in that district would help elect someone. And so, the district lines would be less important than how you vote. And you wouldn't have monopoly representation. You would have a degree of proportional representation and you would have this fair balance of viewpoints represented across the country. And right now you have all these sort of dead-end districts; 90% of districts you can foretell the outcome two years before the election, essentially.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
ROB RICHIE: If you do this, you’d actually have a competitive reason to vote in every election. The candidates would have real incentives to engage with voters across these districts, and we’d get a nicer mix of people. We’d have urban Republicans from Manhattan and we’d have, you know, Oklahoma Democrats, which I think Congress really needs, so the parties just don't vote rubber stamp for their side.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I really appreciate your optimism. It makes me dream of solving other intractable problems.
Do you have a way to make a workable jet pack?
ROB RICHIE: [LAUGHS] Well, well, let’s, let’s work on that one too.
No, but – the fun part of this for us is these are all statutory. We can do this by a simple change in law. So it's really an act of our own political imagination that is within reach.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rob, thank you very much.
ROB RICHIE: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rob Richie is executive director of the nonpartisan group FairVote and co-author of Every Vote Equal.