06/09/2008 07:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Senator Bill Nelson: Abolish The Electoral College

Senator Bill Nelson has just introduced a wide-ranging package of election reform in Congress. This legislative package fixes some small technical election problems (absentee voting restrictions) as well as some larger problems (primary calendar reform). But the biggest issue in the bunch is a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College, and replace it with direct election of the president. Nelson is a Democratic senator from Florida, which makes sense when you remember the troubles they had down there in the 2000 election.

People have been calling for election reforms pretty much since we started having elections in this country. Many reforms have been adopted, and many more have failed. The ones adopted sometimes turn out to have unintended consequences and need further reform. And some of the ones not adopted make a whole lot more sense than how we currently vote, but they were never politically viable.

When this country started, for instance, voting rules stated that it wasn't enough just to be a citizen. It wasn't enough to be white. It wasn't even enough to be male. Most states restricted the franchise to white male citizens who owned over a certain value of property. Like a house or a piece of land. We've come a long way since then, and have near-total enfranchisement of all of the American public at this point (theoretically, at least).

But problems remain. Nelson's package of reforms addresses some of these. National rules for absentee ballots, for one. Paper trails for electronic voting, for another. You can read the summary of this reform package on Nelson's Senate website.

There are two issues in this package which overshadow the more technical election tweaking by offering sweeping changes to our presidential election process. The first is to institute a system of rotating regional primaries. This would abolish the current primary calendar, and divide the country up into six regions. Big states and little within those regions would vote on the same day. The "early" states (New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada) would lose their frontloaded status. Every presidential election year, a different region would get to vote first. Each region would vote about a month apart, and the order in which they vote would rotate each time.

But the real sweeping reform Nelson is introducing is a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. We would elect presidents with a nationwide popular vote count, instead of by the arcane rules of the Electoral College. It would be replaced with: whoever gets the most votes wins. Period. Al Gore might be finishing up his second term right about now, if this had been in place in 2000.

Two questions immediately spring to mind: would this be a good idea, and is it even possible? As it stands currently, the Electoral College gives disproportionate representation of citizens who happen to live in different states. It was designed to do this. Smaller states are boosted in representation over larger states. States with low populations are boosted over the more populous states. States that are off the beaten path with few large cities get more of a vote than states with the big population centers.

So would changing this help or hurt either party? It's kind of inconclusive. The smallest 10 states by population are a politically mixed bunch (Hawai'i, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, Washington D.C., Wyoming). As are the top ten (California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina). So while a careful analysis could be performed on whether this would hurt or help Democrats or Republicans, it would have to be pretty in-depth to come up with any solid answers (you'd have to consider not just the population for each state, but also the margin between the vote in that state for the past few elections -- since no state is 100% "red" or "blue" in voting patterns). And even then, voting patterns change over time, so (as I said) conclusive answers are hard to find.

One effect of a national popular vote would be that rural states would likely get less attention paid to them by the candidates. Farm states, for the most part, don't have a high population density. Maybe a rational discussion could take place about the advisability of our current ethanol subsidies, for instance -- especially if Iowa wasn't first in a rotating regional primary system. But farmers would likely not be in favor of the idea for this very reason.

Which brings us to the second question -- is it politically possible to get such an amendment passed? The short answer is, probably not. The bar for passage of a constitutional amendment is so incredibly high that it likely is doomed to failure from the outset. It would need (after getting through Congress) three-fourths of the states to ratify it. And America has more than one-fourth of its states who would likely see abolishing the Electoral College as a bad idea -- because they'd lose some political clout as a result. Meaning chances for passage are slim, but not totally impossible.

Leaving aside the question of whether it could actually pass, would such a reform of the way we elect our president be a good idea, or not? How you answer that might depend more on where you live than your personal political persuasion.


Chris Weigant blogs at: