Opinion writer January 23, 2012

Last Thursday’s GOP presidential debate was a doozy. Some of the commercials weren’t bad, either. My favorite was the ad from the National Popular Vote movement, promoting legislation in the 50 states to guarantee that the people, not the electoral college, choose our president.

Mind you, I’ve always found it kind of fallacious to worry that our current system elevates popular-vote losers to the presidency: that’s because popular votes cast in a state-by-state contest for 270 electoral votes do not reflect the national will. Rather, they reflect the results of a competition in which candidates tailor their messages and deploy their resources according to the rules of the electoral college; they would do everything differently if the goal was a popular-vote majority.

So when Al Gore got about 500,000 votes more than George W. Bush in 2000 but still lost, I was pretty much unmoved. Complaining about that — as opposed to the different issue of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore — was like griping that your basketball team lost even though it made more free throws.

In a contest for popular votes, Bush would have had an incentive to scrounge for every vote in states he had locked up, like Texas, or the ones he had consigned to Gore.

Still, it’s easy to see why the electoral college is so unloved. It is inconsistent with the idea of one-person, one-vote; every 677,000 Californians get one electoral vote, while the 563,000 inhabitants of Wyoming get three. And it gives presidential nominees an incentive to cater to the interests of “swing” states while treating the rest as flyover country.

The National Popular Vote plan would, at least in theory, solve those problems. Instead of trying to abolish the electoral college through a constitutional amendment — which small states might block — National Popular Vote devised a way to get around it: States agree by law to cast all of their electoral votes for the first-place finisher in the national popular vote; and the law becomes operative as soon as it is adopted by enough states to total 270 votes in the electoral college.

So far, nine deep-blue jurisdictions with a total of 132 electoral votes — including Maryland, the District and California, the 55-elector behemoth — have signed on to this proposed interstate compact.

I might be eager to support it, too, if I were convinced that the proposal wouldn’t lead to all sorts of unintended negative consequences. Alas, I’m not convinced.

The proposal still falls short of a true national direct election for the presidency, which would, presumably, require a uniform set of rules for verifying and counting ballots, administered by a national electoral board.

Instead, this plan would leave the election to the states and the District, which means that the “national” popular vote would still be the summation of 51 different elections, each run according to slightly different rules and procedures.

Think how much chaos surrounded hanging chads and other variations among the county-level vote counters of Florida in 2000. Now project that over the entire country.

The Constitution says Congress has to approve all interstate compacts. The Supreme Court interpreted this permissively in a 1978 case on taxation — but you can be sure a compact that affected presidential elections without Congress’s approval would get litigated, big-time.

For all its flaws, the electoral college helps stabilize U.S. politics by encouraging the development of a two-party system. Choosing the president by direct popular vote would encourage third- or fourth-party candidacies whose appeal might not extend beyond a few large states or a single region.

This has occurred a few times in U.S. history even under the existing system, with the result that the electoral-college winner garnered considerably less than 50 percent of the popular vote in multi-candidate races.

It’s not clear why this is any less of an affront to democracy and majority rule than the electoral college itself. Do we really want a popular-vote system that could easily produce presidents based on 25 or 30 percent of the ballots cast?

Six decades ago, Stanford professor Kenneth Arrow demonstrated mathematically that there is no such thing as a perfectly fair voting system. “Arrow’s impossibility theorem,” as it came to be known, won him the Nobel Prize in economics. In all these years, no one has proved him wrong.

lanec@washpost.com