While a half dozen Republican hopefuls are seeking the opportunity to run against President Obama, there is another campaign underway to change the manner in which we elect the president. The method we now use has been a running controversy since the1787 Constitutional Convention when the delegates fought over the issue.
After days of wrangling between the large states and the small states, delegates finally turned it over to a special committee to bring in a recommendation. The committee recommended that each state get as many votes (electors) for president as it has members of Congress. (North Dakota gets three.)
Thus, the Electoral College was born, a compromise favoring big states accepted by the small states with the promise that most presidential elections would end up in the House of Representatives where each state would get one vote. It didn't work out that way.
The system hasn't worked as planned in a number of ways and has resulted in dubious election results in just about every generation since 1787.
One thing we have learned is that the system is vulnerable to being manipulated by the intervention of a strong but dangerous third party candidate. This lesson came when racist George Wallace ran in 1968 and garnered 46 electoral votes. It was not enough to force the election into the House of Representatives but it was sufficient to make the regulars in both major parties realize that manipulation and horse-trading would determine the outcome.
As a consequence, great interest was demonstrated in revamping the Electoral College following the 1968 election. Most of the proposals being discussed at the time would have brought the electoral votes closer to the popular vote by breaking up the state-by-state winner-take-all system.
During the debate, conservatives were in favor of breaking up the Electoral College because their presidential candidates were being forced to espouse liberal programs to win the votes of minorities in the urban areas. Liberals were less vocal because they were caught between their belief in one-person, one-vote and support of the urban minorities.
As the dialogue proved, the issue was too complex to develop a national consensus in the 1970s so Electoral College reform went away until the 2000 Bush-Gore election when Al Gore got the most votes and lost the election in the Electoral College. This aberration reignited the reform issue.
Advocates of change are proposing to apply the one-person, one-vote principle to the election of the president. However, they are realistic enough to know that change will not occur through the conventional method for amending the Constitution, i.e. passage by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states.
So they are planning an end run. Since states can decide how they want to cast their electoral votes for the president, their strategy is to get enough states with a majority (270 votes) in the Electoral College to pass laws pledging their votes to the presidential candidate who gets the most votes nationwide.
California has just agreed to join seven other states and the District of Columbia in this effort. Thus far, the participating states have accumulated 123 electoral votes - almost half way to their goal.
While the crusade is interesting to watch, it will not succeed. So far, supporters have picked the low fruit. Getting the other states with 147 electoral votes will be tough. As in the post-Wallace effort, the issue has too many facets to develop a consensus large enough to reach the goal. The debate will be skewed, convoluted and confusing. And without massive consensus in our system of government, nothing happens.