Do a Majority of Americans Want to Get Rid of the Electoral College?

In my last post, I considered ways to reform the Electoral College (EC). One way is for states to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). The other option is for states to adopt the Congressional District Method which Maine and Nebraska currently use to apportion their electoral votes.

I noted in my analysis that it was not clear what Americans currently think of the EC or the NPVIC. Luckily, this week’s The Economist/YouGov Poll asked its panel a number of questions connected to this debate. The results tend to be in line with Gallup’s 2016 findings, which I discussed in my last post.

The Economist/YouGov Poll asked three questions.

While the last of these questions did explain how the NPVIC works, it is surprising how many Americans are not sure whether or not they like the idea.

What can we learn from this poll’s findings? Here are three observations, which largely reflect the country’s political mood.

  1. Democrats do not hold too much regard for the EC and they want to amend the Constitution to eliminate the system and let voters directly elect the president.
  2. Republicans have favorable views of the EC and prefer to keep the system as is.
  3. Independents are divided on this issue and many of them are not sure what to think of the current electoral system.

Given these divisions, the EC is here to stay! The best the EC’s critics can hope for is for states to reform how they award their electoral votes. Clearly, the NPVIC is one possible reform, but most people are not aware of this initiative. The other option is for states to adopt the Congressional District Method I reviewed in my last post. A final proposal, which I did not discuss in my proposal and has been discussed by considered by some state legislatures, is for states to apportion their electoral votes proportionally.


Should We Reform the Electoral College? A Few Considerations

For the last days, I have been thinking about the way Americans elect their president and I am not the only way thinking about this issue, according to Google Trends data.

To win the presidency, a nominee has to earn a minimum of 270 electoral votes, rather than a majority of votes cast. This is not the place to review the history of the Electoral College (EC), but it is important to keep in mind that it totals 538 votes. Each state and the District of Columbia gets a proportional share of these electoral votes, according to the following formula:

  1. States receive two electoral votes, which corresponds to each’s allotment of two seats in the U.S. Senate.
  2. The remaining electoral votes are distributed among the 50 states based on each’s number of Congressional Districts.
  3. With the adoption of the 23rd amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the District of Columbia has three electoral votes.

The EC is a much-maligned system. In a recent town-hall, Massachusetts Senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren explained why she wants to get rid of the EC and let Americans vote directly for their president. Here is one of Senator Warren’s tweets summarizing her position:

Unsurprisingly, Republicans oppose her proposal. For example, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted:

Even President Donald Trump, who won the EC but lost the popular to Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million votes, entered the debate, sharing his thoughts on Twitter.

What do Americans think of the EC? Do they want to get rid of it? Last summer, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducted a poll that found that close to two-thirds of Americans want to directly elect their president by popular vote. It also demonstrated that Democrats strongly favored getting rid of the EC while Republicans’ attitudes are mixed. A Rasmussen survey of likely voters carried out in early October 2018 did not corroborate the PRRI’s findings. Only 46% of respondents favored “eliminating” the EC. In December 2016, Gallup found that 49% of Americans wanted “to amend the Constitution to allow for a popular vote for president”, but this was lower than the 62% of respondents who in 2012 wanted to get rid of the EC. In addition, Gallup’s research also suggested that 81% of left-leaning and 19% of right leaning Americans wanted to do away with the EC.

While many Americans are dissatisfied with the EC, amending the constitution is unrealistic in today’s hyperpartisan environment. So what can we do?

One solution, as Jamelle Bouie recently argued in the pages of The New York Times, is for states to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This initiative is quite simple. It requires states (and the District of Columbia) to pledge their delegates to the winner of the national popular vote. So far, 13 states, equaling 181 electoral votes, have passed legislation supporting this project. But the system goes into effect once the initiative attracts 270 electoral votes.

StateGovernorState Legislature2016 Pres. WinnerVote Margin
CADemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton30%
CODemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton5%
CTDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton16%
DCDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton86%
HIDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton32%
ILDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton17%
MARepublicanDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton27%
MDRepublicanDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton26%
NJDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton14%
NYDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton25%
RIDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton16%
VTRepublicanDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton26%
WADemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton16%

While other states are considering joining the Compact, the biggest hurdle, as the table shows, is that Republicans still dominate a majority of the states’ legislatures and governor mansions across the country. For now, the Compact is an unrealistic option.

Another solution could be for states to adopt what I call the Maine-Nebraska Model or what is also known as the “Congressional District Method“. These two states distribute their electoral votes using the following formula:

  1. The winner of the popular vote receives the two electoral votes associated with their states’ representation in the U.S. Senate.
  2. A presidential candidate can lose the state’s popular vote, but still earn electoral votes if he or she can win a majority of the vote in each of the state’s Congressional Districts.

In 2008, Nebraska split its electoral votes, awarding John McCain four of its five electoral votes and one to Barack Obama. Obama won the majority of the vote in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Omaha and its suburbs. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won three of Maine’s four electoral vote, while Donald Trump won the electoral vote of the mostly-rural 2nd Congressional District.

What if all the states adopted this Maine-Nebraska Model? Would it have affected the results of the 2016 presidential race?

The table below includes numbers for the actual outcome of the elections, while the next column looks at the results if we apply the Maine-Nebraska Model. The table also includes the number of Congressional Districts and states each candidate won. The last column shows who won the District of Columbia’s three electoral votes.

Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC

If all states had apportioned their electoral votes using Maine’s and Nebraska’s approach, President Trump would have still comfortably won the presidency. Should this disqualify this alternative to the EC?

Let us apply the Maine-Nebraska Model to the 2012 and the 2008 presidential elections.

Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC

Under the Maine-Nebraska Model, President Obama would have been a one-term president. And Obama’s victory in 2008 would have been narrower.

Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC

What if we applied the model to the 2004 and 2000 elections?

Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC
Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC

Under the Maine-Nebraska Model, President Bush would have earned more electoral votes in both elections.

What can we learn from this analysis? If we agree we Senator Warren’s belief that we need to change the EC in order to force presidential candidates to campaign outside “battleground states”, the Maine-Nebraska Model accomplishes this goal. After all, would Maine or Nebraska have received any attention during the last presidential elections, if they distributed their electoral votes as the other 48 states?

It is important to note that Senator Warren would probably not support the Maine-Nebraska Model. But, her desire to eliminate the EC is unrealistic. Amending the constitution will not take place in the next years.

Republicans’ opposition to reforming the EC is understandable. If it was not for the EC, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton would have won their respective races. But if public opinion starts to turn against the EC, Republicans could propose that states adopt Maine’s and Nebraska’s approach as a measure that seems more democratic than the current electoral system.

Would this be good for democracy? It would be a step in the right direction. But the chances that states will adopt Maine’s or Nebraska’s approach is also a long shot. It is not in either party’s interest. By turning battleground states into battleground districts, the parties would have to adapt their campaigning structures and raise more money to target even more districts.

For now, it seems we will just have to accept the EC’s limitations as it is unlikely that Americans will be able to reform or replace the current electoral system.

Fact-Checking Governor Ricardo Rossello’s Claims on Statehood for Puerto Rico

This post was published in Pasquines on October 4, 2018.  

At the end of September, Newsweek’s Robert Valencia interviewed Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood governor, Ricardo Rosselló. They met a few days after President Donald Trump told Geraldo Rivera that he did not support Puerto Rico’s statehood aspirations. The president also blamed the island’s recovery on Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, and other “incompetent” leaders. Rosselló used the interview to make a case for why Puerto Rico should be admitted as the nation’s 51st state.

In making his case for statehood,  Rosselló made two problematic statements that require further scrutiny. For example, he told Valencia that  “Prior to the storm, only 20 percent of U.S. citizens in the mainland knew that we were citizens, and now, more than 90 percent do.” For the governor, this is Hurricane Maria’s silver lining. But, it is not clear how Rosselló reached this conclusion, as survey data discredits his view.

For the last two years, The Economist/YouGov poll has asked its respondents the following question: “What is the national citizenship of a person born in Puerto Rico whose parents were both also born in Puerto Rico?” Let us look at the responses collected on May 2016 – as Congress debated the PROMESA bill, October 2017 – following Hurricane Maria,  and June 2018 – after the New England Journal of Medicine published a study argued that the storm claimed the lives of an estimated 4,465 individuals.

The results of the most recent poll are not too encouraging. The number of people who were “not sure” about Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status has increased in the last two years. While the increased media coverage of Hurricane Maria helped many Americans realize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, the newest survey shows a substantial decrease in the number of Americans who understand this reality.

Trying to gauge Puerto Ricans’ support for statehood, Valencia asked Rosselló  whether the low participation rate in the June 2017 status plebiscite was an indication that Puerto Ricans “have lost interest in statehood.” He also asked the governor whether his constituents’ support for statehood has changed in the last year.

Rosselló  argued that “The only reason folks decided not to participate in the plebiscite last year was that they knew what the outcome was going to be: that people were going to support statehood.” He also stressed that the current “support for statehood is big.” Let us look at the first statement.

It is difficult to explain why voters did not participate in the referendum. El Nuevo Dia conducted a poll two weeks before the vote that found that 52% of registered voters favored statehood, while 11% noted that they would not participate in the process. Another survey predicted the statehood option would win with 56% support and it found that only 15% would either support the opposition parties’ call for a boycott of the plebiscite or would not vote.

Given that the average participation rate in past status plebiscites and referendums is 72%, why did so many registered voters abstain from the vote? After the plebiscite, Jose Alfonso, who conducted El Nuevo Dia’s poll, re-surveyed the respondents in the original study. Based on these conversations, he argues that only 7% did not vote to show solidarity with the boycott. Around half of the sample explained that did not vote because the results of the plebiscite were not binding. Another 24% of respondents explained that the process was not fair and that Rosselló’s New Progressive Party (NPP) had included status options that did not reflect voters’ preferences.

It is not also clear whether Puerto Ricans’ support for statehood has increased or decreased after Hurricane Maria. However, a recent Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey, conducted in Puerto Rico this summer, concluded that 48% of Puerto Ricans support statehood and 26% the status quo. While 10% favor independence, 16% refused to answer the question or did know now which option to choose. These results clearly demonstrate that Rosselló has exaggerated Puerto Ricans’ support for statehood after Maria.

Why are Rosselló’s statements problematic? For statehood to become a reality, Rossello and the NPP’s leadership need to get their facts straight. While media coverage of Puerto Rico has increased in the United States since Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s infrastructure, there is little evidence that U.S. citizens in the mainland know more about Puerto Ricans’ legal status or support the island’s incorporation as the 51st state. Just because 97% of those who participated in the 2017 status plebiscite voted in favor of statehood does not mean that most Puerto Ricans support statehood. If Rossello and the NPP leadership want Puerto Rico to become the next state of the union, they have to recognize that the statehood movement still faces lots of obstacles and that the NPP will need to spend more time and resources persuading Americans, both in the island and the in the mainland, about the benefits of statehood for Puerto Rico and the nation as a whole.

About the author: Carlos L. Yordán is an associate professor of political science and international relations and the director of the Semester on the United Nations at Drew University in Madison, N.J. He is currently researching U.S.-Puerto Rico relations in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Would Americans Support a Reduction of the U.S.’s Contribution to the U.N. Regular Budget?

The U.N. General Assembly’s General Debate starts on September 25, 2018. This year’s theme is “Making the United Nations Relevant to All People.” While this is a lofty title, it fails to capture the U.N.’s short-term challenges: convincing the Trump administration’s of its relevance. 

Since he announced his candidacy for the presidency, Donald Trump has questioned the significance of multilateral institutions and the rules that guide the global trading system. He has even been chastised U.S. relations with Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom and other European states. So it is not surprising that President Trump thinks that the U.S. needs to rethink its foreign policy priorities and it should only finance those international institutions that advance the nation’s interests. This explains why the Trump administration has decided to stop funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, better known as UNRWA, in late August 2018. 

The U.S. currently pays 22% of the U.N. Regular Budget, which finances the organization’s Secretariat and many of the U.N.’s policies. The current U.N. Regular Budget (2018-19), which is for two years, is $5.4 billion and the U.S. contributes around $1 billion during this time period. Even though the U.N. Secretary General had proposed to cut the current budget by $193 million, the U.S. forced the the U.N. to further reduce the budget by $93 million to achieve a 5% reduction of the amount budgeted for the U.N. in 2016-17.

What do Americans think of the U.S. contributions to the U.N. Regular Budget? Do they want the U.S. to cut its funding or withhold it as a way to penalize the U.N. for thwarting U.S. interests?

The Better World Campaign (BWC), a non-profit group that is trying to strengthen the bonds between the U.S. and the U.N., have been conducting public opinion surveys of American attitudes towards the U.N. since 2009. Its newest poll was conducted a year ago after President Trump delivered his first speech to the U.N. General Assembly.

Polling from the BWC not only finds that Americans have favorable views of the U.N., but that these positive opinions have increased over time. According to latest figures, 65% of Americans have a positive opinion of the U.N., while 28% have a unfavorable view.

This chart summarizes the proportion of Americans who view the United Nations favorably.

Given the fact that so many Americans have a favorable attitude to the U.N., they should be critical of any effort to cut the U.N. Regular Budget or withhold payment of U.S.’s contribution as way to penalize the U.N. when it contradicts American foreign policy interests. 

Since 2019, the BWC’s polls have asked the following question:

Each member-nation of the UN pays a portion of the UN regular budget in the form of dues. These dues are based on a member-nation’s capacity to pay or its share of world income. The U.S. represents approximately 25% of the world’s income, and is assessed to pay 22% of the UN’s budget. Knowing this do you favor or oppose the U.S. paying our dues to the UN on time and in full?

Using the Better World Campaign survey's findings, Americans overwhelmingly favor the U.S. paying its dues to the U.N. Regular Budget.

These findings suggests that most Americans would not support the Trump administration’s efforts to politicize the U.N. budgetary process. But, this is not actually the case.

The last BWC survey (October 2017) asked respondents to rate portions of President Trump’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly using 1-100 scale, where 100 represents the strongest support for the statement. The BWC asked respondents to rate the following statement:

“The United States bears an unfair cost burden for the United Nations’ budget, but, to be fair, if the United Nations could actually accomplish all of its stated goals, especially the goal of peace, this investment would easily be well worth it.”

U.S. President Donald Trump
Respondents were asked to rate their support for a portion of the President Trump's speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2017. In the statement, the president considers whether the U.S. contributions to the U.N. are unfair. In this rating, "100" equals the strongest support for the statement and "1" the lowest support.

Given that President Trump is a very divisive figure, it is interesting that many of the people who strongly supported paying in full the U.S.’s dues to the U.N. Regular Budget also support his views. Indeed, 20% of respondents fully agreed with the statement and another 42% gave it ratings ranging from 80 to 100 points. 

Even though the surveys of the BWC find that most Americans have favorable views of the U.N. and many of its policies, other surveys demonstrate that Americans are a lot of more critical of the U.N.

Since the 1950s, Gallup has been asking respondents the following question: “Do you think the United Nations is doing a good job a poor job in trying to solve the problems it has had to face.” As the next chart demonstrates, Americans’ opinions of the U.N. have shifted over time. Compared to BWC survey’s results, the Gallup’s findings show that many Americans give the U.N. poor marks.

Using Gallup data, the chart summarizes Americans' attitudes of U.N. efforts to address the world's problems.

It is difficult to explain why Americans have these different views about the UN and why so many agree with President Trump’s statement. But, it is worth noting that Trump’s remarks stress that if the U.N. could deliver on its promises, “this investment would be easily worth it”. Trump’s views force respondents to question whether the U.N. is doing a “good” or a “poor” job – to use the Gallup survey’s characterization. Thus, this could explain the disparity in the BWC survey between those that strongly want the U.S. government to pay its dues fully and on time versus those respondents who support Trump’s statement. 

Given that the BWC and Gallup surveys fail to give us a crosstabulation of their findings, it is difficult to see which Americans are most supportive or most critical. The Pew Research Center has conducted surveys on American’s public opinion of the U.N. for the last two decades. And one of their key findings is respondents’ party affiliation affects their views of the U.N. In 2016, 43% of Republicans had a favorable view of the U.N., while the same was true for 80% of Democrats and 64% of independents.

In this post, we considered whether the U.S. public would support the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce its contribution to the U.N. Regular Budget or to withhold payment of its dues as a way to penalize policies carried by the U.N. While most Americans want the U.S. to pay in full and in time its budgetary contributions, many Americans also agree with President Trump’s view that the U.S. contribution is “unfair”. Given the Gallup poll’s findings, we should expect President Trump to continue his line of attack to make sure the U.N. and the Secretary General do not contradict U.S. interests.

This brief analysis demonstrates that the U.N. leadership’s short-term challenge is not to convince “all people” of the U.N.’s current relevance. The Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, and his colleagues have to also persuade President Trump that America’s budgetary contributions will help the U.N. advance its interests. If the Trump administration decides to cut its funding or delay payment, the U.N. will have also curtail its activities, jeopardizing its 2030 Agenda

About the author: Carlos L. Yordán is a long-time observer of the United Nations. He is currently associate professor of political science and international relations & director of the Semester on the United Nations at Drew University.