AUGUSTA, Maine — President Barack Obama’s second inauguration Monday provided political leaders with an opportunity to praise a system of government that causes the United States to be “admired throughout the world for our peaceful transitions when campaigns end,” according to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. But voters see at least two areas where that system could be improved, according to a recent Gallup poll.
More than 60 percent of survey respondents support abolishing the Electoral College, according to Gallup survey results from polling conducted Jan. 8-9. Even more — 75 percent — support term limits for members of Congress.
Gallup reports that Republicans, Democrats and independents all register more than 60 percent support for replacing the Electoral College, which assigns presidential electors based on the number of congressional districts in each state, with a system that elects the president based on the overall national vote tally. Opposition among all three groups tracks at about 30 percent, with just less than 10 percent undecided.
Support for doing away with the Electoral College is strongest among younger Americans. Sixty-nine percent of poll respondents between 18 and 29 years old answered “yes” to replacing the Electoral College with a national vote. Voters age 65 and older were more likely to endorse retaining the Electoral College, but even that support — 32 percent — was tepid.
Dating to 1968, Gallup has found strong sentiment among poll respondents to eliminate the Electoral College, although Republican support for the plan diminished for a brief period after 2000, when GOP candidate George W. Bush won the presidency with a controversial Florida victory that gave him more than the required 270 Electoral College votes despite losing the popular vote that year to Democrat Al Gore.
Three other presidents, John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888, also won the White House while losing the popular vote. Those examples, and more recent complaints that the Electoral College system gives undue power to highly contested swing states, have long fueled calls to change the nation’s presidential election system.
Efforts to alter or eliminate the Electoral College date to the early 19th century. The most serious challenge occurred in 1969, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution supporting a direct election of the president and vice president and requiring a runoff if no candidate received more than 40 percent of the vote. A Senate filibuster killed that proposal.
Nine states, including Massachusetts and Vermont, have signed on to a National Popular Vote movement, which would commit electors to cast ballots for the presidential candidate who receives the most votes nationally, regardless of how he or she fared in that state. Proponents’ goal is to get states totaling 270 electoral votes, the number needed to win the presidency, to endorse the plan.
Maine is one of two states, with Nebraska, that doesn’t commit its full slate of electors to the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote. Maine allocates two electoral votes to the overall winner, and one each to the candidate who receives the most votes in each of the state’s two U.S. House districts.
Gallup also found broad support across party lines and age groups for congressional term limits. The survey question did not specify the number of terms to which members of Congress would be limited. Eighty-two percent of Republicans backed the general concept. Democrats registered 65 percent support.
This year’s results mirror similar survey responses Gallup collected from 1994 to 1996, when between two-thirds and three-quarters of respondents favored congressional term limits. They also reinforce historically low public opinion of Congress that Gallup recorded in 2012.
In November 1994, Maine voters overwhelmingly endorsed a ballot question that would have imposed a limit of three consecutive terms (six years) for the state’s representatives to the U.S. House and two consecutive terms (12 years) for U.S. senators from Maine. The League of Women Voters challenged the initiative, and in May 1995, the U.S. District Court for Maine deemed it to be unconstitutional. That same month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in U.S. Term Limits Inc. v. Thornton that states could not impose term limits on federal office holders.
Since then, individuals and groups, including U.S. Term Limits, continue to seek ways, including a call for a constitutional convention, to impose limits on entrenched politicians who hold federal office.
However, at the polls that determine who serves in Congress, U.S. voters in 2012 sent 91 percent of incumbents who sought re-election back to Washington, D.C. That aligns with trends from the past half-century, in which even strong anti-incumbent sentiment rarely knocked congressional re-election success rates below 80 percent.
Maine’s two incumbent U.S. House representatives, Democrats Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, easily won re-election in 2012. The last time a Maine candidate seeking re-election to Congress lost was in 1996, when first-term Republican U.S. Rep. James Longley Jr. lost to Democrat Tom Allen in the 1st District.
For its latest survey on the Electoral College and congressional term limits, Gallup interviewed 1,013 U.S. adults by land line and cellphone on Jan. 8-9. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percent.