Let’s first lay some groundwork. Under the Constitution, a group of people called "electors" — not the people at large — elect the President and Vice President. Each state gets a number of electors equal to the state’s total number of senators and representatives in Congress (e.g., for MA: 10 reps + 2 senators = 12 electors), and each state gets to decide how to choose their electors. Most states have opted for the familiar "winner take all" system whereby the candidate who gets the most votes in that state gets all of the state’s electoral votes (two states, Maine and Nebraska, have different systems). This system has at least two large, and at this point familiar, problems: (1) the winner of the popular vote may not be elected President; and (2) at least in recent years, the election has tended to be conducted entirely in a small number of "swing states," because states like, say, Mass. and Texas are considered "safe" for one candidate or the other, so campaigning there would be more or less a waste of time.
The obvious solution: change the system so that the winner of the popular vote wins the election — like every other election in the United States. The problem with the obvious solution: it requires a constitutional amendment, which is a cumbersome and time-consuming process.
The Amar proposal gets around that problem in a very clever way. The idea is simple enough to state: states would cast their electoral votes for whichever candidate wins the national popular vote. Since states are free to allocate their electoral votes however they want, no constitutional amendment is required. What would be required is enough states passing laws that would say, essentially, "the electors of this state shall support the candidate that wins the national popular vote."
Now, here is where some of the weirdness comes in. Let’s use 2004 as an example: Bush won the national popular vote, but Kerry won Massachusetts. Under the existing rule, of course, MA’s electoral votes were cast for Kerry. But under the Amar plan, they would have been cast for Bush, because Bush won the popular vote.
Outrageous? Disenfranchises MA’s voters? Some of the folks posting comments at Kos seem to think so. But they’re wrong — they don’t quite grasp the idea. The purpose of the Amar plan is to make state-by-state tallies completely irrelevant to who wins the presidency. The point is that the candidate who wins the national popular vote should be President. We still have to use the electoral college’s state-by-state system as the means to that end, because that’s the mechanism that the Constitution sets up. But the Amar plan simply discards the notion that a state’s electors should support the candidate favored by that state’s voters. Instead, what the Amar plan does is turn every voter into a national voter. And for the presidential election, that seems appropriate.
Implementation is another somewhat tricky issue. It would be stupid for one state to change to a "national vote" system on its own — obviously, if MA were the only state to have done that in 2004, MA voters would be the only ones in the country on the "national vote" system, so MA voters really would have been disenfranchised. Fortunately, there’s an easy answer to this. Each state’s new "national vote" law would take effect only if enough other states had adopted a similar law such that the electoral votes of those states were enough to win the election. So each state’s law would say something like "This law shall take effect if, and only if, states whose electors constitute a majority of the electoral college have passed a similar law."
As the Amars point out, this could be accomplished if as few as eleven states (the largest ones) enacted "national vote" laws. As long as a majority of the electoral votes are guaranteed to be cast for the candidate who wins the national popular vote, then the national popular vote is all that matters, and candidates would campaign very differently from the way they do now.
Like I said earlier, the Amar plan is the best one I’ve seen on electoral college reform. It would transform our current absurd system into a truly national election for President, it would do it without a constitutional amendment, and it would require legislative action in a relatively small number of states.
So, you might ask, how can we make this happen? More on that soon.