One Person, One Vote of Equal Value


By Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

For The Sunday Gazette


       Let me tell you about the greatest political idea of the last two hundred years, one that could solve an important problem, be simply and quickly implemented, and would, or at least should, receive strong bipartisan support. The leading advocate of the idea is Stanford University computer science professor John R. Koza, the inventor of the scratch-off lottery ticket. But don’t hold that against him.

      The problem to be solved, if you consider it such, is that four times in the history of our country, a president has been elected who received fewer popular votes than an opponent who garnered more electoral votes. This can happen because every state, no matter how small, is given two extra electoral votes, one for each of its senators, that are not allocated in proportion to population. This creates the absurdity that a vote cast in sparsely populated Wyoming has four times the chance of affecting the allocation of electoral votes than a vote cast in populous New York.

      Stimulated by recent articles by nationally-syndicated columnist E. J. Dionne and our own Carl Strock, the Gazette has been receiving a steady stream of letters either supporting or condemning the idea of electing our presidents by direct popular vote. And, as will be revealed momentarily, changing to direct popular vote can be done without amending the constitution to abolish the Electoral College, a step that would certainly be vetoed by at least 13 small states who enjoy their unfair advantage, enough to kill ratification.

       Few have ever paused to calculate how great the disparity can be between the percentage of the popular vote a presidential candidate wins and the number of electoral votes earned. In fact, a candidate who wins the 40 smallest states each by a tiny margin could, with only 22 percent of the total popular vote, defeat a candidate who accumulates 78 percent by winning the ten largest states by large margins. No actual disparity has ever come close to such a great imbalance, but even its mathematical possibility should be enough to cause professors of the electoral college to surrender their tenacity if not their tenure.

      There is a concern greater than the risk of electing a president who loses the popular vote. You may be shocked to learn that the Constitution does not guarantee that “We the People, in order to form a more perfect union” (and we keep trying) be allowed to vote for president by any method. Article II, Section 1, Clause II of the Constitution merely says, "Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct (emphasis added), a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.”

      In other words, a state legislature, may, without threat of a gubernatorial veto, appoint electors of its own choosing, the people be damned. As recently as 2000, the Florida legislature was brash enough to threaten to appoint its own electors—for George Bush, of course—after its citizens had voted but before the outcome had been resolved. And this would have been perfectly constitutional, in contrast to Supreme Court intervention in a matter of a state right, which was not (but they always get the last word).

     One of the Gazette’s letter writers claimed that the Electoral College guards against “mob rule.” But a majority of the electorate all of whom are empowered to cast a vote of equivalent effect on the result of their collaborative effort is not a mob; it operates like an interlaced network of neurons that form a brain, a thinking entity whose judgment is greater than that of the sum of its parts.

      So what is this ingenious new idea that will effectively neuter the Electoral College without need of a constitutional amendment? The proposal, called the Amar Plan after its originators, was first put forth in 2001 by two law professors, Akhil Amar of the Yale Law School and his brother Vikram Amar. Their proposal calls for a compact that would require participating states to allocate all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote regardless of which candidate wins their statewide vote. The laws would be passed serially, state by state, but would not go into effect until they are passed by enough states to package 270 or more electoral votes for the winner of the nationwide popular vote.

     That could be as few as 11 states, in particular, California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Georgia, a set with a cumulative 271 electoral votes. A more realistic collection of 15 states would also have 271: replace Texas with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Maine; and Georgia with Massachusetts and Vermont. Maryland just became the first state to pass the necessary law, and, as I write, bills already introduced in several other states are making their way toward passage. To monitor the status of the Amar Plan, see                                  

      Some opponents of directly electing our president believe that it would mean that candidates would not bother to campaign anywhere but in major metropolitan areas. But I submit that just the opposite is true, that is, they would visit far more population centers, and hence more states, if all votes counted equally. In the current system, neither major party candidate wastes much time visiting Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit, or Boston after Labor Day. But they spend an inordinate amount of time in Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. But under the Amar Plan, the candidates would visit all of those cities plus many smaller areas such as, in our own state, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, and, yes, even the Capital District. According to the Census Bureau, our 850,000 people makes us the 57th largest metropolitan area in the country, not chopped liver at all.


Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion page.