Last month, the New York Times joined the chorus for the National Popular Vote (NPV)—the idea that we should scrap the Electoral College and elect our presidents with a single nationwide popular vote. In a long article in the Review section of the Times’ Sunday edition, Jesse Wegman, a member of the Times’ editorial board, observed that the Electoral College system can result in a candidate winning the presidency with fewer popular votes than his or her opposition. This happened in 2000 and again in 2016, when the Republican candidates won a majority of the electoral votes but fewer popular votes than their Democratic opponents.

Since2016, the NPV has gained adherents in states with Democratic governors andlegislative majorities. It’s a relatively simple approach: a state passes a lawthat says all its electoral votes will go to the winner of the national popularvote, irrespective of who won the popular vote in the state itself. The systemgoes into effect when the total electoral votes of the participating statesreaches 270 (the number needed to secure an Electoral College majority). Statesthat have already authorized this system have 196 electoral votes, so the NPV willgo into effect if states with only 74 more electoral votes elect Democraticgovernors and legislatures in the 2020 election.

While the highly unusual results in 2000 and 2016 explain why the Democratic Party is pushing this reform, the NPV reflects a somewhat shocking failure to understand the fairly obvious consequences that would ensue—catastrophic for both the Republican and Democratic parties—if this system should actually go into effect. Thefirst and most important error in the NPV idea is the assumption that when wediscard the Electoral College system there will still only be two partiesrunning candidates. We have a two-party system in the United State in largepart because of the Electoral College, which requires a candidate for thepresidency to win a majority of the electoral votes of the states. Thirdparties have grown up from time to time, but all ultimately disappeared becausetheir candidates could not win an Electoral College majority. Thus theElectoral College forces our parties to become enormous coalitions of interests,varying slightly over time, capable of appealing to a broad swath of society. But if a person or party could win the presidency with a simple plurality of the popular vote, we would see the creation of many special interest parties—pro-choice and pro-life, pro- and anti-gun, pro- and anti-immigration, and many more—all of which would be running candidates who would only need to cobble together a few more votes than the next one. Name the issue, and there will be advocates on both sides running for president.
If a person or party could win the presidency with a simple plurality of the popular vote, we would see the creation of many special interest parties.
In such a multi-candidate field, it would be possible to win the presidency with only a very small plurality, perhaps as little as 20 percent. Given the fact that he has established a significant financial base for his candidacy, there is little question that Senator Bernie Sanders or a socialist successor would be able to run for president—and very possibly win—in an election with a large number of candidates splitting the popular vote. The chance to win the presidency with only a sliver of the national vote would also encourage self-funded candidates like Michael Bloomberg to run for president, inevitably increasing the importance of large personal funds in our politics. Oneof the arguments frequently marshalled by supporters of the NPV is that theElectoral College encourages campaigns to focus only on the states where thevote will be close. Other states, like California or Texas, are ignored becausetheir electoral vote is a foregone conclusion. However, a different and moretroubling problem would be likely without the Electoral College. In that case,candidates would focus entirely on the largest states and cities, where largenumbers of votes could be harvested at limited cost. This would seriouslydegrade the way a presidential contest under the current electoral vote systemencourages wide appeals to the diverse US population. Another key element of the Electoral College is the fact that the American people have accepted it as a valid way to elect a president. The importance of this acceptance should not be underestimated. In the election of 1992, for example, Bill Clinton received a majority of electoral votes and was always considered the duly elected president, despite the fact that he received only a plurality (43 percent) of the popular votes. A third-party candidate, Ross Perot, received almost 19 percent. Yet, there was never any doubt—because he won an Electoral College majority—that Clinton had the necessary legitimacy to speak for the American people. Itis highly unlikely that a president elected with only 20 percent of the popularvote, and no Electoral College majority, would have a mandate to enact the policiesthat a majority of the country supports or to represent the American people inthe councils of the world. Anational popular vote would also substantially increase the incentives forelectoral fraud. Under the Electoral College system, if fraud occurs in one ortwo states it is unlikely to overturn the election of a president who has otherwisewon an unchallenged majority in the Electoral College. But in a close nationalpopular vote election, where the victorious candidate has, say, 20 percent ofthe vote and the runner-up has 19 percent, there would be powerful incentivesto litigate allegations of fraud in virtually every state, leaving the countrywithout a duly elected president until that litigation is ultimately settled atthe Supreme Court. The Framers of our Constitution developed the Electoral College because of the difficulty of choosing a president at a time when communications moved at the speed of a horse. No one would say that the Framers anticipated the problems of electing a president in a country of almost 350 million people, but it’s a stroke of good fortune that a system developed for other reasons turns out to be one of the principal causes of the long-term stability of our presidential election system; we should not lightly exchange it for a system that, in the end, is virtually certain to produce electoral chaos.