The discussion concerning the Electoral College system has only been exacerbated by the divisive presidential election. Because of this, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact movement has gained momentum and is looked to as a solution to the polarized debate over the Electoral College system.
The National Popular Vote (NPV) appeals to the calls for direct democracy in the United States by having states pass legislation that would allocate all of their electoral votes to the candidate that wins the national popular vote. For Iowa, this movement has far less of an appeal.
The NPV movement has successfully passed legislation in 16 states with 196 electoral votes. The goal of the movement is to reach 270 electoral votes, which would then ensure the winner of the national popular vote won a majority of electoral votes. The NPV movement’s website emphasizes that the decision by states to allocate their electoral votes rests solely with the states themselves, according to Article II of the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, they argue that the current winner-takes-all electoral vote allocation system has no grounding in the Constitution because the system has changed historically and Maine and Nebraska currently allocate electoral votes by congressional district.
The NPV proposal has capitalized on the heated debate over the Electoral College system, but the group’s own website highlights how the current system actually increases Iowa’s influence and contributions to the presidential election process. As a historical swing state, Iowa’s six electoral votes are often battleground territory for both parties. Iowa voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2000, 2008, and 2012, while voting for the Republican nominee in 2004 and 2016. The margins in these races tend to be close as well.
Due to this swing state history, Iowa has an outsized role in presidential elections. The NPV website highlights this outsized role by pointing out just how many presidential events are held in a state each cycle and Iowa ranks just behind large battleground states like Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
The NPV would decrease the role Iowans have in the presidential election process. The current Electoral College system presents Iowa with access and influence on presidential politics that has brought into the political spotlight what many would deem flyover country.
This all being said, the status quo is not going to placate the NPV movement and activists who are calling to abolish the Electoral College. Therefore, it is in Iowa’s best interests to lead an effort to reform the Electoral College through a large compromise in the spirit of the founding fathers.
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Opponents of the Electoral College system in its current state say small states are overly represented while votes in large states don’t count to the same degree. Well-known New York Times election analyst Nate Cohn contends that the small-state bias in the current system is exaggerated. By Cohn’s calculation, 81 percent of electoral votes are awarded by population while just 19 percent are awarded equally among the states and Washington, D.C. The analysis by Cohn also emphasizes the bias is largely due to the winner-take-all approach taken by 48 states currently. This can all be changed.
It is in Iowa’s best interests to maintain the Electoral College status quo and to reject the NPV movement, but to ensure the continuation of the system as a whole, a compromise on reform would seem to be the best path forward. Two states, Nebraska and Maine, currently allocate their state’s electoral college votes by congressional district and statewide population. Two of the state’s electoral college votes go to the statewide popular vote winner and the remainder are decided by the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district.
An analysis by Marquette University law professor J. Gordon Hylton highlights the decentralization of the Electoral College process that would come from shifting to an allocation by congressional district and statewide popular voter approach. The difficulty would be in convincing every state to move to this allocation method in order to ensure an equal electoral vote playing field.
Allocating electoral votes by congressional district and statewide popular vote is possible across the country. A change would ensure that every voter is heard in the presidential election process just like they elect their members of Congress. This maintains the inclusion of all sizes of states in the process while also addressing the calls from many to ensure every vote counts and is heard in our presidential election process. Additionally, a change to two electoral votes being decided by statewide popular vote and the remainder by congressional district It is reflective of the “Great Compromise” reached by the founding fathers at the original Constitutional Convention in 1787. American historian Carol Berkin describes the process to reach a compromise between small and large states concerning representation in explicit detail in her book A Brilliant Solution. Popular representation in the House of Representatives and equal representation in the Senate made up the “Great Compromise.”
Iowa could help lead the way to a “Great Electoral Compromise” by sparking a movement to save the Electoral College and ensure every vote and state is heard in the presidential election by moving the country to the Maine and Nebraska model for allocating electoral college votes.
Nick Laning of Altoona is a master’s in public policy student at the University of Northern Iowa. He has political science and international relations degrees from Simpson College, where he was a fellow in the John C. Culver Public Policy Center.