By Tim Alberta
The Electoral College is under fresh assault on the heels of Donald Trump’s victory last November—the second time in five presidential races the popularly elected candidate lost the election—but it’s not due to any groundswell in Congress for a constitutional amendment to adopt a national popular vote. Instead, the most viable campaign to change how Americans choose their leader is being waged at booze-soaked junkets in luxury hotels around the country and even abroad, as an obscure entity called the Institute for Research on Presidential Elections peddles a controversial idea: that state legislatures can put the popular-vote winner in the White House.
It was mid-February, inside a four-star resort in a third-world country, when I heard the pitch to transform American democracy. The institute flew 11 political journalists to Panama for an “educational seminar” on election reform. (My peers included reporters representing outlets ranging from Breitbart to U.S. News & World Report.) The trip presented a bargain: three days of sunshine, sightseeing, fine dining and free cocktails on the institute’s dime, in exchange for being educated by seminar coordinators in the pool, at the bar, overlooking the Panama Canal—and most aggressively, during the five-hour workshop in a windowless conference room—about the history and weaknesses of the Electoral College, and the potential of a radical alternative.
The radical alternative is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact—call it the “Compact,” for short. The most concise explanation: Rather than abolishing the Electoral College via constitutional amendment, state legislatures would change their laws to award their electoral votes to whoever wins the most votes nationwide, regardless of state-by-state results.
Technically, yes, this could happen. Article II of the Constitution gives states authority to allocate electors however they choose, and in fact two already do so differently from the rest: Maine and Nebraska award electoral votes by congressional district, while the other 48 adhere to a winner-take-all format. The Compact is written with a trigger clause: As soon as enough states have joined the Compact to account for 270 electoral votes, each of their state laws is activated. The next election, those states automatically throw their votes to the popular winner, and—regardless of what non-Compact states do—the leader of the free world will suddenly be determined by the full balance of voters in the union.
If this sounds farfetched—politically cumbersome, mechanically problematic, legally questionable—well, it is. Since its conception in 2006, the Compact has been criticized as a constitutional end run that shouldn’t be taken seriously. And yet it’s far closer to taking effect than most of us realize. Ten states, plus the District of Columbia, have already joined, representing 165 combined electoral votes. By its own rules, the Compact needs to secure only another 105 electoral votes to trigger the change. That said, those next 105 will prove infinitely harder to collect than the first 165. All 10 states in the Compact, plus D.C., are Democratic strongholds; neither a single battleground state, nor a single red state, has entered.