By George F. Will
WASHINGTON — Let us now praise an insufficiently famous man, Nevada’s Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, who in May gave his party’s presidential aspirants a much-needed example of prudence. With the national media mesmerized by those aspirants’ festival of pandering, scant attention was given to Sisolak’s good deed.
He vetoed legislation that would have enrolled Nevada, against Nevada’s interest, in the National Popular Vote (NPV), a multistate compact to circumvent the Constitution’s amendment process to achieve something the Constitution’s Framers rejected — the election of presidents by popular vote majorities or, often, pluralities. Sisolak’s good deed and sound reasoning demonstrate why those Democratic aspirants who advocate abolition of the Electoral College — 11 do explicitly; three others, who are profiles in indecision, are “open” to abolition — are not just mistaken, they are wasting their breath.
Because in 2000 and 2016 the Democratic candidate won the popular vote but not the presidency, many Democrats favor amending the Constitution to replace the electoral vote system with the election of presidents by direct popular vote. Politically, this is almost impossible, for the reason many Democrats favor it: The Electoral College system enhances the political weight of the less populous states, which are disproportionately red. Hence the National Popular Vote gimmick.
By joining the NPV compact, each state agrees that its electoral votes will be cast for the winner of the national popular vote, even if a different candidate wins the popular vote in the state. The compact would come alive when the compacting states have, cumulatively, at least 270 electoral votes. So far, 15 states and the District of Columbia, with a combined total of 196 electoral votes, have enacted NPV.
Nevada’s Democratic-controlled House and Senate voted to join NPV. Sisolak, however, vetoed this because it would “diminish the role of smaller states like Nevada in national electoral contests.”
In 2016, 32 states (including Nevada) and the District of Columbia had a larger share of the electoral votes than of their share of the nation’s population. Abolition of the Electoral College would diminish the weight of these 33 entities in presidential elections. Motivated by misconceived altruism or tribal loyalty to the Democratic Party, some of the 32 state legislatures (Washington, D.C.’s city council has no say in amending the Constitution) might vote to ratify an amendment ending the Electoral College. Four small states, all of them blue (Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Vermont), have joined the NPV compact.
But 13 states can block a constitutional amendment. The 13 least populous states would suffer the largest diminution of their weight in presidential politics. So, at least 13 probably would kill such an amendment.
The NPV compact, an attempted end-run around the amendment process, provides no enforcement mechanism if states flinch from casting their electoral votes for a candidate the states’ voters spurned. Furthermore, the Constitution says, “No state shall, without the consent of Congress ... enter into any agreement or compact with another state.” The Supreme Court has allowed a few compacts without congressional approval, but precedence suggests Congress’ consent is needed for compacts that impede federal supremacy, which NPV would do. And the Senate is not apt to approve NPV, which diminishes states that have 64 Senate votes.
To the multiplying reasons for hoping that Donald Trump’s presidency is in its final 17 months, add this: Although he might assemble 270 electoral votes, it is highly unlikely that he can win the popular vote. So, if he is reelected, three of the previous six elections will have been won by the popular vote loser. This will fuel the assault on the Electoral College, which has served the nation well and is justified by sound political considerations (it encourages national campaigning and coalition building) and constitutional principles (it tempers majoritarianism in order to strengthen federalism).
Finally, a potential new wrinkle in the wrangling about the Electoral College concerns Texas. Myra Adams, a Real Clear Politics contributor, notes the following: Since 1976, when Jimmy Carter carried Texas, Republican presidents and nominees have easily won there. But Trump’s margin of victory (9 percentage points) was smaller than in Iowa (9.4 points). His approval last month in Texas (51% approve, 45% disapprove) represented a 14% net decrease since January 2017 (54% approve, 34% disapprove). If Texas turns blue, Republicans, shorn of 38 secure electoral votes, might display their versatility of conviction and penchant for philosophical somersaults by discovering that they favor abolishing the Electoral College after all. But by then Democrats will have changed their malleable minds to favor keeping it.
Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.