Subcommittee Hearing on "Proposals for Electoral College Reform: H.J. Res. 28 and H.J.
September 4, 1997
2237 Rayburn House Office Building
Mr. Chairman, members of the subcommittee, I am Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States.
I am pleased to be here today to express the League's support for a constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college and establish the direct election of the President and Vice President of the United States by popular vote of the American people.
The League of Women Voters of the United States is a non-partisan citizen organization with 150,000 members and supporters in all fifty states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands. For over 75 years, Leagues across the country have worked to educate the electorate, register voters and make government at all levels more accessible and responsive to the average citizen.
Since 1970, the League has supported an amendment to the Constitution that would abolish the electoral college and establish a direct, popular vote for the President and Vice President of the United States. The League arrived at this position through its time-honored study and consensus process. Leagues in over 1,000 communities across the country participated in the study and came to the same conclusion: our method of electing a President must be changed to ensure a more representative government.
Political developments since the 1970s have only underscored the need for the elimination of the electoral college system. The downward trend in voter participation, coupled with increased cynicism and skepticism amongst the public about the ability of elected leaders to provide meaningful representation are the warning signs of a potential electoral fiasco.
Picture if you will a future national election in which a presidential candidate receives a majority of the popular vote, but is denied the 270 votes necessary for election by the electoral college. This has already happened once in our nation's history, when, in 1888, Grover Cleveland out-polled Benjamin Harrison in the popular vote but lost the electoral college vote by 233 to 168. It caused a public furor then, when political office was often gained through back-room deals and closed-door maneuvering. Imagine the public outcry today, after a long primary campaign and a grueling race for the Presidency. Imagine the public's rage at being denied their candidate of choice.
Now go one step further. Consider a close three-way race for President in which no candidate earns the necessary electoral college votes to win. This has happened twice before in our nation's history, in 1801 and 1825, when the House of Representatives chose Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, respectively. While the League believes both of these men were great presidents, we are troubled about the potential for a future presidential candidate with the highest number of popular votes to lose the election in a House of Representatives dominated by one or another political party.
In the twentieth century, we have only narrowly avoided a series of constitutional crises in which the electoral college could have over-ruled the popular vote.
In the 1916 presidential election, a shift of only 2,000 votes in California would have given Charles Evans Hughes the necessary electoral votes to defeat Woodrow Wilson, despite Wilson's half-million vote nationwide plurality.
In 1948, a shift of only 30,000 votes in three states would have delivered the White House to Governor Dewey, in spite of the fact that he trailed President Truman by some 2.1 million popular votes.
In 1960, a shift of only 13,000 votes in five states (5,000 in Illinois, 5,000 in Missouri, 1,200 in New Mexico, 1,300 in Nevada and 200 in Hawaii) would have made Richard Nixon president.
In 1968, a shift of 42,000 votes in three states (Alaska, Missouri and New Jersey) would have denied Nixon an electoral college victory and thrown the election into the House of Representatives.
In 1976, a shift of only 9,300 votes (5,600 from Ohio and 3,700 from Hawaii) would have elected Gerald Ford, even though he trailed Jimmy Carter in the popular vote by 1.6 million ballots.
Apart from the public outcry that would be caused by a circumvention of the popular will, there are a number of other serious flaws in the electoral college system.
The electoral college system is fundamentally unfair to voters. In a nation where voting rights are grounded in the one person, one vote principle, the electoral college is a hopeless anachronism.
The current system is unfair for two reasons.
First, a citizen's individual vote has more weight if he or she lives in a state with a small population than if that citizen lives in a state with a large population.
For example, each electoral vote in Alaska is equivalent to approximately 112,000 people. Each electoral vote in New York is equivalent to approximately 404,000 eligible people (based on 1990 census data). And that's if everyone votes!
The system is also unfair because a citizen's individual vote has more weight if the percentage of voter participation in the state is low. For example, if only half of all people in Alaska vote, then each electoral vote is equivalent to roughly 56,000 people.
Moreover, the electoral vote does not reflect the volume of voter participation within a state. If only a few voters go to the polls, all the electoral votes of the state are still cast.
Finally, the electoral college system is flawed because the constitution does not bind presidential electors to vote for the candidates to whom they have been pledged. For example, in 1948, 1960 and 1976, individual electors pledged to the top two vote getters cast their votes for third place finishers and also-rans. Defecting electors in a close race could cause a crisis of confidence in our electoral system.
For all these reasons, the League believes that the presidential election method should incorporate the one-person, one-vote principle. The President should be directly elected by the people he or she will represent, just as the other federally elected officials are in this country. Direct election is the most representative system. It is the only system that guarantees the President will have received the most popular votes. It also encourages voter participation by giving voters a direct and equal role in the election of the President.
Of course, a direct popular vote does not preclude the possibility of a close three-way race in which no candidate receives a majority, or even a plurality, of the votes. The League believes that if no candidate receives more than 40 percent of the popular vote, then a national run-off election should be held.
Until there is a constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college, the League supports the early establishment of clear rules and procedures for the House and Senate to handle their responsibilities in electing the President and Vice President if there is no majority vote in the electoral college.
Procedures should be established to avoid the last-minute partisan wrangling that would inevitably take place. In addition, we believe any congressional vote for President must take place in full public view, with individual representative's votes entered into the Congressional Record.
When the constitution was first written, our nation was a vastly different kind of democracy than it is today. Only white, male property owners could vote. The 15th Amendment gave black men the right to vote. The 17th Amendment provided for direct popular election of the Senate. The 19th Amendment gave women the vote. The 26th Amendment established the right of citizens 18 years of age and older to vote.
The time has come to take the next step to ensure a broad-based, representative democracy. Fairness argues for it. Retaining the fragile faith of American voters in our representative system demands it. We urge the House and the Senate to pass a constitutional amendment abolishing the electoral college system and establishing the direct popular election of our President and Vice President.