Today’s Column — Not Ready to be Popular

Top Democrats in the Iowa Senate think the country would be better off without the Electoral College deciding presidential elections.They think the popular vote should rule.

So they’re pushing a bill that would hand Iowa’s electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote, even if that nominee fails to win Iowa’s popular vote. It would take effect once it’s also approved in a list of states with electoral votes that add up to the winning majority of 270.

The upside, backers say, would be to make sure that we don’t have a repeat of 2000, when Al Gore won the national popular vote but lost the Electoral College and the presidency to George W. Bush. Never mind that we now have a Democratic president who won a sweeping popular and electoral vote victory. Dems can’t let go of 2000.

When news of this first broke, I was intrigued. I’m a popular vote guy, a fan of small “d” democracy.

We’re not the dangerous rabble who our Founding Fathers feared would ruin the country for rich landowners.

But the more I thought about this issue, the more I realized this is a bad idea.

It’s not because I’m worried a popular vote system would diminish the importance of small states like Iowa. I’m more worried about what’s good for the country than what’s good for Iowa.

Speaking of the founders, one big reason I’m against the Senate bill is that it seeks to change the Constitution without formally amending it. One reason the document endures is that it’s wicked hard to change.

Finding a clever way around the amendment process is misguided.

I’m also not sure the country is ready to handle a national popular vote-based presidential campaign.

I think three things have to be in place before switching over to the popular vote.

You need a uniform, standardized, safe and efficient system for voting, counting votes and potentially recounting votes. You need a transparent, real-time and loophole-free reporting system that can be used to track campaign finances and other paid political advocacy. And you need a strong, authoritative and independent news media to help inform hundreds of millions of voters.

We have none of those.

We have a hodgepodge of state-by-state election laws marred by a litany of flaws.

Look at the mess in Minnesota over a U.S. Senate seat.
Can you imagine a multistate or a national recount?

We have a campaign finance reporting system that allows mountains of dollars to be shuffled and hidden.We can’t trust the system to allow us to follow the money.

Our news media are becoming more fractured, partisan and economically fragile by the day. The news is becoming less thoughtful and more viral. We’re now more suited to covering “American Idol” than a national popular vote for president.

Some also argue that electoral votes should be handed out by congressional districts, bringing us closer to a popular vote. But what about all the states with messed-up partisan redistricting systems?

So I’m reluctantly sticking with the Electoral College. I still hope someday we can graduate.

■ For further discussion, go to Todd Dorman’s column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.
Contact the writer: (319) 398-8452 or



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5 responses to “Today’s Column — Not Ready to be Popular

  1. susan

    What the Founding Fathers said in the U.S. Constitution is “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . .” The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

    Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, that the voters may vote and the winner-take-all rule) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation’s first presidential election.

    In 1789, in the nation’s first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, it was necessary to own a substantial amount of property in order to vote, and only 3 states used the winner-take-all rule (awarding all of a state’s electoral vote to the candidate who gets the most votes in the state). Since then, as a result of changes in state laws, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the winner-take-all rule is used by 48 of the 50 states.

    The normal process of effecting change in the method of electing the President is specified the U.S. Constitution, namely action by the state legislatures. This is how the current system was created, and this is the built-in method that the Constitution provides for making changes.

  2. susan

    the U.S. Constitution does not require that the election laws of all 50 states are identical in virtually every respect. The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment only restricts a given state in the manner it treats persons “within its jurisdiction.” The Equal Protection Clause imposes no obligation on a given state concerning a “person” in another state who is not “within its [the first state’s] jurisdiction.” State election laws are not identical now nor is there anything in the National Popular Vote compact that would force them to become identical. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution specifically permits diversity of election laws among the states because it explicitly gives the states control over the conduct of presidential elections (article II) as well as congressional elections (article I). The fact is that the Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution permits states to conduct elections in varied ways.

    The National Popular Vote bill does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

    It is important to note that neither the current system nor the National Popular Vote compact permits any state to get involved in judging the election returns of other states. Existing federal law (the “safe harbor” provision in section 5 of title 3 of the United States Code) specifies that a state’s “final determination” of its presidential election returns is “conclusive” (if done in a timely manner and in accordance with laws that existed prior to Election Day).

    The National Popular Vote compact is patterned directly after existing federal law and requires each state to treat as “conclusive” each other state’s “final determination” of its vote for President. No state has any power to examine or judge the presidential election returns of any other state under the National Popular Vote compact.

  3. susan

    The state-by-state winner-take-all system is not a firewall, but instead causes unnecessary fires.

    Under the current system, there are 51 separate vote pools in every presidential election. Thus, our nation’s 55 presidential elections have really been 2,084 separate elections. This is the reason why there have been five seriously disputed counts in the nation’s 55 presidential elections. The 51 separate pools regularly create artificial crises in elections in which the vote is not at all close on a nationwide basis, but close in particular states.

    A recount is not an unimaginable horror or logistical impossibility. A recount is a recognized contingency that is occasionally required (about once in 332 elections). All states routinely make arrangements for a recount in advance of every election. The personnel and resources necessary to conduct a recount are indigenous to each state. A state’s ability to conduct a recount inside its own borders is unrelated to whether or not a recount may be occurring in another state.

    If anyone is genuinely concerned about the possibility of recounts, then a single national pool of votes is the way to drastically reduce the likelihood of recounts and eliminate the artificial crises produced by the current system.

  4. susan

    The U.S. Constitution, existing federal statutes, and independent state statutes guarantee “finality” in presidential elections long before the inauguration day in January. These constitutional provisions, statutes, and precedents apply equally to a presidential election conducted under the National Popular Vote legislation and an election conducted under the current system.

    The U.S. Constitution (Article II, section 1, clause 4) provides:
    “The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.” [Spelling as per original]

    The common nationwide date for meeting of the Electoral College has been set by federal law as the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.

    Under both the current system and the National Popular Vote approach, all counting, recounting, and judicial proceedings must be conducted so as to reach a “final determination” prior to the common nationwide date for the meeting of the Electoral College. In particular, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that the states are expected to make their “final determination” six days before the Electoral College meets (the so-called “safe harbor” date established by section 5 of title 3 of the United States Code).
    In addition, in almost all states, state statutes already impose independent (typically earlier) deadlines for finalizing the count for the presidential election. The U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that state election officials and the state judiciary must conduct counts and recounts in presidential elections within the confines of existing state election laws.

    It may be argued that the schedule established by the U.S. Constitution may sometimes rush the count (and possibly even create injustice). However, there can be no argument that this schedule exists in the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes, and state statutes; that this schedule guarantees “finality” prior to the meeting of the Electoral College in mid-December. This existing constitutional schedule would govern the National Popular Vote compact in exactly the same way that it governs elections under the current system.

  5. susan


    A survey of 800 Iowa voters showed 75% overall support for a national popular vote for President. The question was “How do you think we should elect the President when we vote in the November general election: should it be the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states, or the current electoral college system?

    By political affiliation, support for a national popular vote for President was 82% among Democrats, 63% among Republicans, and 77% among others.

    By age, support was 76% among 18-29 year olds, 65% among 30-45 year olds, 76% among 46-65 year olds, and 80% for those older than 65.

    By gender, support was 82% among women and 67% among men.

    By race, support was 75% among whites (representing 93% of respondents), 65% among African Americans (representing 2% of respondents), 86% among Hispanics (representing 1% of respondents), and 58% among others (representing 4% of respondents).


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