Rick Laible proposes a bypass to the Electoral College

by Jay Stevens 

State Sen. Rick Laible (R-Darby) has introduced a bill that would give Montana’s presidential electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. According to Laible, the bill would make Montana and other sparsely populated states more relevant in the national election:

Republican Sen. Rick Laible and other supporters said the change would make Montana and other sparsely populated states more of a factor in presidential races and could increase voter turnout.

“This affirms what we all hear, which is one man, one woman, one vote,” Laible told the Senate State Administration Committee. “The electoral voting system doesn’t allow that.”

The bill has caused confusion, and why not? At a quick glance it looks like it has the potential to counter the will of the state’s voters, especially if the state prefers the candidate who loses the national popular vote. In practice, however, the bill actually gives more weight to Montanans’ votes and issues than the present system.

I actually wrote about this issue way back in March, when the idea got some exposure in The New Yorker.

According to the bill backers, under the current winner-take-all system, presidential candidates completely ignore all the states where it’s clear which candidate will win. After all, it doesn’t matter if 55 percent or 65 percent of Montanans vote for a candidate: the state’s electoral votes go to the candidate in either case. As a result, the presidential race – and subsequent national politics – is aimed at a handful of “battleground” purplish states – like Ohio and Florida – where the race could go either way.

According to the theory, the system discourages voter participation. Why go out and vote if you’re an Idaho liberal? Why go to the polls if you’re a California conservative? Your vote doesn’t matter.

If Montana and a number of other states pass bills that grant their state’s electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, that all changes. Under the new system, with the Electoral College bypassed, it does matter if a candidate wins 55 percent or 65 percent of the vote in Montana. All the extra votes get added to the total and could help the candidate prevail in the popular vote.

There are, of course, nay-sayers who point to the nation’s republican structure, tout the process’ “protection” of small states. Which is all hogwash, naturally. Hertzberg:

There’s a traditional view that without the Electoral College Presidential campaigns would simply ignore the small states. It hasn’t worked that way. The real division that the Electoral College creates, in tandem with the winner-take-all rule, is not between large states and small states but between battleground states and what might be called spectator states. Of the thirteen least populous states, six are red, six are blue, and one—New Hampshire—is up for grabs. Guess which twelve Bush and Kerry stiffed and which one got plenty of love, long after the primary season? Size doesn’t matter. At the other end of the spectrum, the three biggest states—blue California, red Texas, and blue New York—were utterly ignored, except for purposes of fund-raising.

That is, the Electoral College doesn’t actually do what it’s supposed to. This won’t make a whit of difference with those that oppose the plan; the real fear here is that a popular referendum would put into power a politician whose politics they find abhorrent. Or worse: it would actually encourage more people to vote.

Personally, I shy away from positions that narrow the democratic process so that I can have my way politically.


  1. I can’t see how this could possibly work well. The idea I’ve heard that I think would work better is getting rid of winner-take-all, and having states’ electoral votes be allocated in proportion to the votes for the candidates. This would give my vote a better chance of counting, and it would also give third parties a better chance at having a real influence on the election.

  2. This can only work well for us if other states follow suit. If this law passes, why bother coming to Montana at all? All you have to do is win the other states.

  3. I’m with you on the implications if everyone goes along but not so sure of how it would function in action in the transition.

  1. 1 Montana Netroots » Blog Archive » First thoughts on the Outdated Electoral College system.

    […] Jay wrote a great post, giving some of the background, but here is what I […]

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