Bill Looks To Create 'National Popular Vote,' Lawmakers Hear From One Of The Idea's Authors

Nov 13, 2019

University of Illinois College of Law Dean Vik Amar, together with his brother, authored a paper that argues the U.S. could move toward a national popular vote without having to amend the Constitution. He spoke with Florida lawmakers ahead of the 2020 legislative session.
Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM

A proposed interstate agreement that would create a true popular vote election is moving across the nation. This week, one of the plan’s original authors talked with state lawmakers during a lunch and learn event. WFSU spoke with Vik Amar about the idea he and his brother hatched nearly two decades ago.

“Could states decide to give their electors not to the candidate who won the most votes in that state, but to the person who won the most votes nationwide? Because, the constitution gives states total control in how to pick their electors,” Amar said Tuesday.

Amar, who is dean of the University of Illinois’ College of Law, has been a professor of constitutional law for years. About 18 years ago, Amar and his brother came up with an idea they thought might have a shot at changing a system he sees as flawed.

“In both 2000 and 2016, but four times earlier in American history as well, you had a president who won the so-called electoral college, but who got fewer votes in terms of the popular vote than his opponent,” Amar said.

Amar and proponents of a national popular vote say the electoral college system puts more weight behind voters in states with smaller populations:

“That rubbed a lot of people the wrong way because what it means is, votes aren’t being counted equally throughout the whole country.”

And, Amar adds, it’s not just the way votes are counted that is influenced by the system in place – it’s also the way candidates campaign.

“With the system currently in place, we know that presidential elections don’t really get waged in a lot of states, they get waged only in a few swing states. So places like Texas are completely ignored, places like Alabama are completely ignored, because they’re going to go Republican no matter what,” he said. “So too, places like California are ignored, because it doesn’t matter if you win places like California by a wide margin, or a small margin.”

So, what could be done to change system, without having to amend the U.S. Constitution?

“States may not want to unilaterally move in this direction,” Amar said. “So what we proposed – my brother and I, who is also a law professor – is that states enter into a coordinated agreement where they say, ‘we will give our electors to the nationwide winner, regardless of who wins in our state, provided there are enough other states who have agreed to do so, to get more than half of the electoral college on board.”

Getting a majority of the electoral college would mean enough states to equal 270 electors. Florida, the third largest state in the nation, carries 29. Already, 15 states and Washington D.C. have passed legislation adopting the agreement, totaling 196 electors.

In the hypothetical that all states agreed to the compact, Aram thinks some election reforms would be in order:

“One of the things that I think should be done, that would need to be done, after enough states sign onto this but before it goes into effect – there should be some standardization of the balloting process, and the counting process, so we can get a reliable national tally.”

That kind of overhaul would take time. For that reason and others, Aram wants his plan to have a delayed implementation.

“I’ve advocated for states to adopt this idea, but defer implementation until say 2032. So, Florida would adopt it today, but say ‘our adoption takes effect when you get to 270, but no earlier than 2032,” Amar said. “That would both give Congress time, in the meanwhile, to iron out any logistical wrinkles of the kind that you just mentioned. And it would also defuse the wrongheaded, but persistent, assumption that some people have that this is going to help one political party and hurt the other.”

Bills filed in the Florida legislature for the upcoming session to join the interstate agreement are sponsored by Democratic Senator Victor Torres and Representative Joe Geller. Geller, Torres and about seven other lawmakers were on hand for the lunch and learn session with Aram. All but one of those were Democrats – with Representative Sam Killebrew attending as the lone Republican.

Geller says his backing of the plan doesn’t come from a place of partisanship.

“I’m not for this because I think it helps Democrats, I’m for this because I think it helps democracy,” Geller said, following Amar’s presentation at the Capitol. “And it’s about one person one vote, which should be our guideline. If this system was not in the constitution, it would not be constitutional.”

Geller’s bill is waiting to be heard by the House Oversight, Transparency and Public Management subcommittee.