This year's election may be the last one where it is possible to win the American presidency while receiving fewer votes than your opponent. A proposal to have states apportion their electoral votes to reflect the popular vote - known as the National Public Vote Interstate Compact -- has been endorsed in jurisdictions controlling 132 electoral votes, nearly half the 270 required to change the system.
If and when the tipping point is reached, it could require some major changes. It could make campaigns substantially more expensive by requiring major expenditures in media markets where the outcome is now taken for granted. At the moment, media buys in the seven largest markets (including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas) are not optional because they broadcast to areas where electoral votes are not in doubt. The largest mandatory market is Washington, D.C., which is required for access to Virginia, which is in play.
The shift would give more prominence to state issues that candidates can now slide by with nothing more than rhetoric. That means issues very important to voters in New York or Texas can be ignored with impunity by both Obama and Romney, given the predictability of the result.
And the change would empower millions of voters ranging from Democrats in Texas to Republicans in Washington, D.C., who now laugh knowingly when they're told we're involved in a campaign where every vote counts. In 2008 more than five million Californians and 3.5 million Texans cast votes that were totally irrelevant.
Finally, of course, the reform promises to end the uncomfortable situation, which last occurred in 2000, where the losing presidential candidate actually receives more votes than the winner.
If television stations in New York City and Republicans in Southern California benefit from this change, who loses? Small states, particularly in the intermountain west, lose some of their clout as their outsized electoral footprint is scaled back. The rural vote would become less important. The change also threatens to erode the pivotal position recently occupied by Midwestern industrial states.
In a situation where Republicans could readily pick up 100,000 votes in New York, scrapping for an extra 15,000 in Pennsylvania would seem less important.
The potential political impact isn't clear. The reform effort is bipartisan, but no Republican executive has yet signed such a law (Schwarzenegger vetoed the California proposal subsequently signed by Jerry Brown while a veto by Hawaii's Republican governor was overridden). There's a fear that Democratic states are ceding power without receiving anything comparable in return.
But it is hard to predict the fallout with great confidence. Certainly the change has the potential to boost turnout, which is inherently destabilizing and probably decreases the number of safe districts.
America's political system is remarkably conservative, but has accommodated major change before. It may soon be asked to do so again.
(More trenchant Jaffe political analysis posted to Punditwire.com)
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