This week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, a step that many felt she should have taken months ago. Calls for Trump’s impeachment date back to 2016, just after he became the second presidential candidate since 2000 to win the White House despite losing the popular vote.
Trump’s popular vote loss also spurred a conversation that had nothing to do with the candidate himself, but everything to do with how he was elected. In a functional democracy, should elections regularly be won by candidates who lose the popular vote? It’s a question that many have asked themselves after November 2016 — and it’s the question that the National Popular Vote initiative seeks to answer.
At its core, NPV questions the wisdom of employing the Electoral College, which has existed since the nation’s founding, as a mechanism to elect the president. Widely accepted for many years, the Electoral College functions through awarding each state a portion of the country’s total 538 electoral votes. Currently, each state awards its votes to the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote. The only exceptions are Nebraska and Maine, which award electoral votes proportionally.
In recent years, however, many have made the point that this system unfairly advantages states with sizable rural populations, effectively sapping electoral power from states with multiple large population centers.
For example, the state with the most Electoral College votes is California, with 55 total. Each one of those votes represents just under 720,000 of the state’s approximate 39.5 million residents. In comparison, Ohio holds 18 electoral votes that represent 11.7 million residents — a ratio of roughly one electoral vote to 650,000 residents. Accordingly, each individual’s vote stretches a little further in Ohio than it does in California.
Residents in other states have a comparatively larger upper hand. About 580,000 residents split Wyoming’s three electoral votes — each vote representing just over 190,000 residents.
Some feel that this discrepancy serves to protect rural voices that would otherwise be drowned out by populations in large, liberal urban centers. However, the flip side of that argument is more compelling. Why should a Wyoming resident’s vote carry four times as much weight in a presidential election than that of a California resident?
The NPV initiative seeks to balance the scales in a politically feasible way that stops short of totally abolishing the Electoral College. The proposal is simple: States that pass NPV bills pledge to commit their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, not the statewide vote. This commitment kicks in once the sum of the states that have endorsed NPV represents at least 270 electoral votes, the minimum number of votes required to win the White House.
Thus far, 15 states and the District of Columbia have enacted NPV into law, representing a total of 196 electoral votes. The 15 states are, by and large, reliably liberal, including the two Democratic strongholds of California and New York.
Now, the real challenge begins — convincing purple- and red-leaning states to buy into an initiative that challenges the currently outsized impact that many of those states have on the presidential election process.
Ohio — a notorious swing state — could be a leader in this regard. Indeed, some attempts have been made to do so, most recently this February when State Representatives David Leland, Kristin Boggs, Janine R. Boyd, Catherine D. Ingram, Mary Lightbody, and Michael Skindell introduced House Bill 70. All of the bill’s co-sponsors are Democrats, and it has yet to gain significant traction.
However, we urge members of the statehouse — on both sides of the aisle — to take seriously the benefits that adopting NPV could offer, and set aside partisanship in order to fix what is clearly a broken electoral system. Given population shifts over the past few decades, the likelihood of presidential candidates winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College is rising and must be treated as an existential threat to our democracy.
The time to act is ripe. We are already staring down a 2020 presidential election that will have nearly indescribable consequences for our collective futures. Questions about important issues like climate change, gun violence, and immigration remain unaddressed — and, in the interim, people are dying.
“As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.” It’s a phrase oft-repeated by political organizers across the state, referencing the fact that the presidential candidate who has taken Ohio has also taken the White House in every election since 1960. It could also hold true for embracing the NPV initiative and paving the way for a more representative electoral future for all of us.
The very fabric of our country, and therefore our democracy, is changing. Challenges that the nation’s founders could have never imagined are driving significant political, demographic, and economic shifts. What worked before won’t necessarily work today — and if we are too slow to realize that fact, it will already be too late.