Opponents of the Electoral College achieved an important victory last weekend when Connecticut’s legislature passed the so-called National Popular Vote compact. Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is expected to sign the measure.
Most Americans have never heard of the National Popular Vote compact, but it is shockingly close to causing a major political and legal firestorm. It is a clever scheme to change how we elect the president without the bother of having to pass a constitutional amendment.
States that approve this legislation enter a simple compact with one another. Each participating state agrees to allocate its electors to the winner of the national popular vote regardless of how its own citizens voted. The compact goes into effect when states holding 270 electoral votes (enough to win the presidency) have agreed to the plan.
With Connecticut’s vote, 11 states and the District of Columbia have now approved the measure, giving the compact a total of 172 electors. It needs only 98 more to reach the 270 mark.
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The Constitution State has drifted far from its roots. What would Founders such as Roger Sherman think? That Connecticut statesman was an influential delegate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Great Compromise—sometimes called the Connecticut Compromise— which gave Congress its bicameral structure, might never have been brokered without him.
Moreover, Sherman was one of many delegates from small states who refused to go along with the idea of a direct popular vote for the presidency. He knew that little Connecticut would be outvoted time and time again. The people at large, Sherman told the Convention, “will generally vote for some man in their own state, and the largest state will have the best chance for the appointment.”
His words reflected the sentiments of other small state delegates.
“An election by the people [is] liable to the most obvious and striking objections,” Charles Pinckney of South Carolina said. “They will be led by a few active and designing men. The most populous states by combining in favor of the same individual will be able to carry their points.”
Hugh Williamson of North Carolina added that “[t]he people will be sure to vote for some man in their own state, and the largest state will be sure to succeed.”
Another delegate was much more direct. “I do not, gentlemen, trust you,” Gunning Bedford of Delaware blasted. “If you possess the power, the abuse of it could not be checked; and what then would prevent you from exercising it to our destruction?”
His statement was strong, but it reflected the fear felt by every small-state delegate in the room.
The 2016 election showed just how reasonable those fears were. Much has been made of Hillary
Clinton’s victory in the national popular vote, but less attention has been paid to where she achieved that victory.
More than 20 percent of Clinton’s 65.8 million votes came from only two states: New York and California. Indeed, if we remove those states from the national tally, Clinton loses by more than three 3 million votes.
Such a lopsided result is not what she had in mind, of course, and she surely wishes that she could move some of those votes to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. She needed to diversify her support in order to win because of the Electoral College. She failed to do that.
Now imagine what Clinton—or any candidate—could do without the restraints inherent in the Electoral College system.
If Clinton reaped a reward from those landslide victories in Los Angeles and New York City, wouldn’t she have worked even harder to run up her tallies there? Why would she make extra visits to Rust Belt states if she could make up the votes with massive voter drives in the big cities?
With the Electoral College, the Democratic Party received a firm reminder not to take those states for granted. Without the Electoral College, such states—which make up vast swaths of the electorate—could simply be ignored.
The 1888 election taught a similar lesson. Landslide margins in a few Southern states gave
Grover Cleveland the edge in the national popular vote. But lopsided regional support wasn’t enough to win him the White House. He learned from his mistakes and came back to win in 1892.
The Electoral College discourages overreliance on a single kind of voter. That’s healthy in a country as diverse as ours. It ensures that small states and less populated parts of the country can make themselves heard. It encourages presidential candidates to build diverse coalitions.
These are principles that Roger Sherman understood so well. He surely wouldn’t understand the decision made by his own state last weekend.
Connecticut has joined an effort to subvert a constitutional institution, even as it attempts an end run around the constitutional amendment process. The Constitution State may no longer be worthy of its name.
Editor’s note: Some quotations in this article have been modified for formatting.