That headline is a bit misleading, I should admit, right from the start. No matter what happens, the Electoral College is going to officially elect our president in 2016. But, perhaps as early as 2020, even this vestige will disappear, if America decides to instead move towards the simpler system of having the national popular vote decide our presidential elections.
As is usual in this year's pre-election period, political pundits are getting a little desperate for things to write about. You can almost hear them saying to themselves: "The race is close, yadda yadda yadda, nothing new to say about it." Speculation runs wild in all sorts of directions, including bizarre election outcomes which statistically could happen (gasp!). The prospect of a 269-269 Electoral College tie is dusted off for another waltz around the block, and the spectre of 2000's Bush v. Gore is usually not far behind. Since it seems to be that season right about now, I thought I'd jump in and take this speculation to even wilder heights. Why not? After all, it's better than writing "The race is really close, hey, folks, pay attention!" one more time.
I'm going to paint a picture of how America could scrap the Electoral College system in the next decade, but I make no predictions whatsoever about the chances this could become reality. You'll have to judge that sort of thing for yourselves.
The Constitution dictates how we elect our presidents. To permanently change this system, America would have to amend the Constitution. This is a tough task, because the bar for amendments is so extraordinarily high. But there is a growing movement to perform what can only be called an "end run" around this constitutional requirement: the "National Popular Vote" (or "NPV") effort. Their scheme is a clever one: since the states set the rules for how their electors vote in the Electoral College, just pass laws at the state level which dictate that all the state's electors must vote for whichever candidate wins the national popular vote for president.
This would be partisan suicide, if it were not for one trigger built into the law -- this scheme wouldn't go into effect until a majority's-worth of states in the Electoral College passed it. To put it another way, nothing would change until states which added up to 270 or more electors had all passed identical laws. Then their votes would override all of the other states, no matter which candidate "won" each state, and the only possible outcome would be electing a president who had won the national vote. For further nuts-and-bolts details, refer to the National Popular Vote group's webpage.
So far, the movement has gotten the same law passed in nine states, with an impressive 132 Electoral College votes -- almost halfway to 270. But when you take a look at the list of states which have passed the law, a certain tilt becomes immediately obvious: California, Hawai'i, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, Washington, and Washington DC. Those are all pretty "blue" states, aren't they?
This is where the speculation begins. What would happen if Barack Obama wins a second term as president in the Electoral College but loses the popular vote? My humble guess is that a whole lot of red states would immediately begin serious consideration of the NPV scheme. "Never again!" they would cry, much as Democrats cried in 2000. If a large Republican state (say, Texas) took the lead, I could easily see the law passing in enough states by 2016 to trigger the new NPV system.
Of course, because this is admittedly an end run around the Constitution, there will likely be a court case. In it, I could see some real bipartisanship as the Democratic Party and the Republican Party join together in an effort to stop the new movement from working in 2016. If the Supreme Court ruled that it was a perfectly acceptable law, though, then our next presidential election would go to whichever candidate wins nationwide.
The Electoral College voting would still take place. The only difference would be seeing (depending on the outcome) all the electors from a state like California voting for a Republican, or a state like Mississippi voting for a Democrat. But the outcome would be clear: the new president would be guaranteed to be the one winning the national popular vote.
Now, this could be an even more gigantic legal mess than Bush v. Gore. Even if the Supreme Court ruled on the overall acceptability of the plan, court cases wrangling over ballot-counting could go nationwide in the aftermath of Election Day. Anything is possible.
But supposed it didn't go awry. Suppose the election of 2016 was fairly normal and the results obvious to all, no matter what the final electoral count was. In this case, it is even conceivable to speculate that in the following four years, national politicians and state politicians would see how meaningless the Electoral College vote was under the new system. Which could lead to the more permanent fix of passing a National Popular Vote amendment. As mentioned, this is an extremely high hurdle, but if the Electoral College was no longer necessary, perhaps it wouldn't be all that contentious to just go ahead and write the plan into our founding document.
Will this be the last election for the Electoral College? Well, no, it won't, even if NPV passes everywhere. Will it be the last election where the Electoral College vote can be different from the national popular vote? Maybe... just maybe. It would almost require Barack Obama to be re-elected without winning the popular vote, but this could indeed come to pass. Ratifying a constitutional amendment to jettison the Electoral College would probably take longer than the four years between 2016 and 2020, but it could conceivably happen in our lifetimes. It's all just speculation, for now, but there is at least one path where I could see it happening in the near future.
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