Every presidential election year, voters become reacquainted with an institution called the Electoral College, whose votes select the president and vice president based on populations and voting trends by state. The Electoral College is a bigger topic in years when the popular vote is close and the electoral votes don’t necessarily follow suit, raising questions about whether the system should be scrapped or reformed.
As pundits looked at key states prior to the recent election and how a few votes here or there could make a big difference in electoral numbers, the debate was revived. Most remember the close presidential election of 2000, in which Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote by over a half million votes and Republican George W. Bush won the majority of the Electoral College after a painfully long recount in Florida.
Following that election, there was a renewed effort to do away with the Electoral College and move to a national popular vote to select the president. The main group backing that ongoing effort encourages states to adopt something called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact — an agreement among the states passing it to award their electoral votes to the ticket that wins the national popular vote. So far, eight states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation agreeing to move forward with it once enough states with a majority of Electoral College voters enter the compact.
In 2009, legislation was introduced to add Arkansas to the list. The bill was passed by the House, primarily along party lines, with Democrats supporting it and Republicans opposing it. However, the measure died in a Senate committee.
The Electoral College was almost abolished after it came under scrutiny following the strange election of 1968. That year, Richard Nixon narrowly won the popular vote over Hubert Humphrey but he won the Electoral College in a landslide due to the third party bid of George Wallace, who split the vote and won electors from five Southern states, including Arkansas.
Following that election, a proposed federal constitutional amendment passed the House and had the support of the White House to move toward a popular vote system. But the amendment was blocked in the Senate in a filibuster by senators from smaller states, including then-Sen. John McClellan of Arkansas.
During that period, Maine came up with a rather elegant solution that is worth consideration today.
The U.S. Constitution gives states the power to select their electors "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct." Most states have a winner-take-all system, meaning whoever receives the most votes in that state is awarded all the state’s electors. But that is not required and is up to state legislatures.
As part of a broad reform package, Maine passed legislation in 1969 that awards the state’s electors by congressional district. In that system, the presidential candidate receiving the most votes in each congressional district receives one elector and the candidate with the most statewide votes receives the two at-large electors.
Since Maine passed its law, Nebraska has been the only other state to pass similar legislation. In 2008, Nebraska awarded Barack Obama one elector based on his majority in the 2nd Congressional District. The other four went to John McCain.
Discussion of Electoral College reform is likely to continue after this year’s election. The Maine model is a more palatable solution than the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, especially to small states. If enough states adopted the Maine model, it would virtually assure that the popular vote winner would be the same as the winner of the Electoral College.
And for Arkansas, it could be advantageous, even if other states do not follow. The unique nature of a swing district — such as Maine’s 2nd District this year – could draw attention to a state now ignored by presidential campaigns.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.