The National Popular Vote is Not a Partisan Question

In a very thoughtful piece, Maine Republican Lance Dutson explains that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, currently under consideration in Maine, should not be a Republican vs. Democrat issue.

Dutson explains that the Compact would not significantly diminish the electoral importance of Maine and other small states because, unless they are also swing states, small states are ignored in political campaigns anyway:

One of the main arguments Republican opponents make about the NPV is that densely-populated areas would see their political influence drown out that of smaller, more rural areas, like Maine. This is a noble concern, however, it’s kind of too late. Maine and other sparsely populated areas are already a minor concern in the grand scheme of our presidential elections.

Jacob Posik of The Maine Heritage Policy Center wrote a good piece recently laying out the argument against NPV. In the piece, Posik noted that, under NPV, Maine’s total share of the national vote total would only be 0.55 percent, and therefore politicians wouldn’t bother paying attention to our state. However, Posik failed to note that, under the current Electoral College system, Maine’s four electoral votes make up only 0.74 percent of the 538 total Electoral College votes nationwide. Under both systems, Maine is merely a blip on the screen of the broader electorate.

The fact is, candidates pay attention to states because they’re competitive, not because of the density of their population. Maine’s 2nd Congressional District got attention during the 2016 presidential election because polling showed the Republican could potentially win the district’s one electoral vote. It didn’t matter that one electoral vote represents only 0.18 percent of the total Electoral College; it only mattered that the electoral vote was up for grabs.

Dutson also explained how the winner-take-all Electoral College effectively disenfranchises many voters, Democrats and Republicans alike:

…The Electoral College doesn’t grant any notable proportional advantage for Republicans in small, rural states, but it does severely marginalize the votes of Republicans in states that are not competitive.

For instance, a Republican hasn’t won New York’s electoral votes since 1984. However, there are more than 2.6 million registered Republicans in New York. Regardless, those Republican votes have not had any impact on the electoral college tabulations in more than 35 years.

The same is true for Democrats in deeply Republican states. There are nearly 50,000 Democrats in Wyoming whose votes are inconsequential to the electoral tabulation in presidential contests because their state hasn’t supported a Democratic candidate since 1964.

Under the NPV system, though, every one of these votes would be tabulated. A Republican in Manhattan or Los Angeles would have their votes added to the national vote total, and voters behind the partisan curtain of the opposing party would no longer be inconsequential to the overall outcome.

The debate over NPV really comes down to the question of a state’s impact on an election versus an individual voter’s impact. When a Democrat moves to Wyoming, is it fair for them to lose their influence over the next presidential election because of their geographic location?



The Electoral College Exposes Businesses Outside Swing States to Punishment

This is from Bill Bishop whose newsletter requires a subscription:

“It’s also worth noting that talk is going around DC that the US and China may keep the original $50B in tariffs, but that the Trump Administration has asked the Chinese to move theirs away from targeting the GOP base to less politically sensitive sectors, even proposing alternative industries to the Chinese side.”

What makes a business sector “politically sensitive”?

Campaign donations is one answer, but since Citizens United individual donations by the mega-wealthy have become far more important than corporate donations. Businesses generally balance donations between both parties and want to avoid alienating customers or hurting their brand by being labelled to the left or right on the political dial.

What matters is location. A business with many employees that is headquartered in a swing state is “politically sensitive” because its managers and employees matter to the close-run pluralities that define a state as a battleground.

Or did you think it was just an accident that Chrysler was twice bailed out by the United States government?

The Electoral College system exposes businesses headquartered on the Pacific or Atlantic coasts to the alleged conduct described by Bishop.

It’s in the interest of all businesses to have the presidency determined by national campaigns, with the winner always being the person who gets the most votes. Only under these circumstances will presidents seeking their second term have to regard all businesses with many employees as “politically sensitive.” 



The History of the Electoral College and the Modern Case for Reform

In an excellent piece published in the Minnesota Star Tribune, Mark Bohnhorst, chair of the State Presidential Elections Team at Minnesota Citizens for Clean Elections, combats some of the most pervasive myths about how the Electoral College was designed to work and how it actually works, as well as examining the likely implications of a national popular vote:

The Electoral College was clearly an unholy if necessary compromise with slavery. Even following the Civil War, the Electoral College crisis of 1876 helped perpetuate racial injustice by ending Reconstruction, which led to another century of racial subjugation.

[Under the national popular vote], candidates will seek votes wherever the voters are. They will not ignore 100 million voters — urban or rural. They will use technology to reach as many voters as possible as efficiently as possible. That feels like democracy — the kind of democratic republic James Madison would have approved.

Read more here.



Electoral Presidency

Donald Trump is the only president in the history of polling never to have gained the support of a majority of Americans for even a single day.

This sort of presidency is only possible because of the Electoral College system.

Donald Trump deserves full credit for his firm grasp of the essential attribute of this system: it benefits a candidate nothing to do what most people want. All that matters is what turns out the plurality in a few states.

The problem for most Americans is the system. It is constructed so as to create an irresistible pull into the presidency of candidates who ignore the preferences of a majority of Americans.

If you don’t like this, don’t blame Trump. Change the system.



Slight Modification

In this article the excellent Tom Edsall speculates that rapid and recent job growth in Republican-leaning states may boost the president's chances for re-election.

But the job growth in the 20 or so states certain to return Republican pluralities is irrelevant.

All that matters with the crazy system by which the United States chooses presidents is the situation in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. 

Of course it is true that job growth and wage growth—particularly among volatile segments, such as less educated people ages 22 to 60—has a huge impact on whether they vote and how they vote. But this consideration affects the outcome only as it applies to the handful of swing states.

If the United States used the national popular vote to pick the president, then the selection of the president would not turn on the fact that swing states by chance are located in a region of the country that lags in an economic recovery.

Should a poorly performing region have the tremendous clout that comes from picking the president?

There are three reasons the answer is no.

First, it is a mere accident that the few swing states currently are in the lagging Midwest. Suppose most people were suffering a sluggish economic recovery, but the swing states happened to be the booming Southwest. Then the well-off would be picking the president, leaving most people relatively ignored by the chief executive. The random selection of some states as swing states should not be the factor that causes the denizens of those states to get attention from candidates for president. 

Second, there are enough people in the Midwest—70 million!—to make it crucial in deciding who wins the national popular vote. Having a decisive role in the electoral college is not necessary for attention to be paid to the citizens of that region. It would be impossible for anyone seeking a national popular vote victory to ignore the Midwest, or to win without doing reasonably well in getting votes there. 

Third, many millions of Americans are underpaid or underemployed because they are less educated than necessary in the modern economy. They deserve to be treated as a voting block critical to choosing the president, regardless of where they live. Very affordable education, personal savings along the lines of Cory Booker's baby bonds, and very cheap health care costs are very important policies for all in this segment. But the focus only on this segment's representation in certain states tilts political promises toward hiring by local companies or hostility toward inbound migration, neither of which is as useful to address the fundamental problem. 



National Popular Vote Passes in Nevada Assembly

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has passed the Nevada Assembly 23-17. The bill will now go to the Nevada Senate.

Nevada has six electoral votes. If it joins the Compact, there will be a total of 195 votes committed from 16 jurisdictions. Once the Compact reaches 270 electoral votes, it will go into effect and all the members will pledge their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, guaranteeing that the winner of the national popular vote becomes president.



The Electoral College Makes Him Do This

According to this article, the President will push "divisive" issues, particularly immigration, in order to win re-election. What is left out, because it is assumed wrongly to be as unchangeable as the weather, is that the Electoral College system makes not only the incumbent running for re-election but also all candidates push issues that can win a mere plurality in the swing states of the Midwest. 

If President Trump had to win a national plurality he would have overwhelming incentive to propose reasonable compromises on immigration. 

It is too easy to criticize the president for taking a position unpopular with most Americans when that same position is quite in accord with his likely voters in the few states that will probably pick the president in 2020: Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. 

Anyone in elected office or who seeks elected office should realize that if the national vote does not choose the president then all candidates in 2020 and forever will shape their policies, promises, and conduct to accord with the views of a small fraction of Americans in a handful of states.



Battlegrounds divide country by tribal politics

As the chart below shows, race and religion are attributes that are highly divisive.

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White evangelicals compose between a quarter and a third of the voting population in the Midwest battleground states. These states (stochastically) determine the presidency. Therefore candidates in the general election, such as the incumbent, adopt views appealing to evangelicals that are not necessarily held by the candidate personally and are anathema to the rest of the country.  In this way the electoral college educes hypocrisy, plays on division,  and intensifies hostility among Americans. 

Does anyone think that battles among people based on religion and race are good for an open and tolerant democracy?  Yet that is what the electoral college fosters. 



A "Flourishing Effort to Advance Democracy"

From The Progressive:

Though billed as a nationwide election, presidential elections are, in reality, decided by, at most, fourteen states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The reason? Virtually all states allocate electoral votes in a winner-take-all format—if a candidate wins the majority of votes in a state, that candidate receives 100 percent of the electoral votes. As such, there is no incentive for presidential candidates to campaign in states dominated by one party, even if millions of supporters live there.

In 2016, 95 percent of candidate appearances and 99 percent of campaign spending went to these swing states. Worse still, these states are unrepresentative of the broader population; they are older and whiter and their economic interests—especially relating to energy production—are anomalous. National priorities are subsequently skewed and federal funds get disproportionately allocated to serve swing state needs.

Despite these facts, Electoral College reform efforts, such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact or proportional allocation of electoral votes, are virtually never discussed in the media. Warren, by taking a stand for a democracy solution, broke the silence, sparked a much-needed debate about the Electoral College, and spread the word about a concrete policy solution that Americans could immediately act on.



What does Fixing a Bicycle have to do with Fixing our Destructive Presidential Election System?

To a striking degree, voters of different political persuasions agree that things are going wrong with our government and our political system.  Shared national values are fraying as a result.  Most voters agree on many of the things that are going wrong—hyper-partisanship, citizen distrust of government, intensive divisiveness, and a conviction that they are not being represented by the system.  To be sure, they don't agree on how to reform the system, but fundamentally they do agree that it needs to be reformed.

When I was a kid growing up during World War II, the popular story line was that Americans were good at fixing things.  When GIs landed in rural France they endeared themselves to the liberated villagers not only by handing out chocolates but also by repairing their bicycles.  To fix a bicycle, one first needs to determine what is wrong with it and then roll up his or her sleeves to make the fix.  That was the reputation Americans had, it was legitimately earned, and we were proud of it.

The same was true of our political system from the earliest days of our country.  We did what we needed to make things work.  Our founders were visionaries, it is true, but they were also practical.  Europeans, by contrast, tended to be guided by ideologies and spent considerable time in ideological debate.  This approach—from the divine right of kings, to the perfectibility of humankind, to communism's "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," to the empty and cynical slogans of totalitarian states—got them into trouble.

In contrast, American political rallying cries—Teddy Roosevelt's "Square Deal," Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal," and Harry Truman's "Fair Deal"—have been grounded in the practical mentality of the Yankee peddler.  In addition to improvisation and practicality, these slogans reflected a commitment to fixing things, making them better.

As a country, we need to fix our political system, and it doesn't matter all that much, beyond certain fundamental values the great majority of Americans share, what collection of beliefs each participant brings to a table where the root causes of our problem are identified and remedies are fashioned by collaborative discussion and reciprocal horse trading.

Making Every Vote Count's leadership has come together from different political perspectives.  Like a rapidly growing number of other groups and individuals, which are concerned about the serious problems in our political system, board members of disparate views on many issues are joined in the conviction that a major source of these problems is  a very specific segment of our Presidential election system -- how 48 states allocate their electoral college votes under a very unrepresentative winner-take-all system -- not in the Constitution, itself, and that it is fixable. This defect is the equivalent of the broken bicycle chain that prevents it from being used properly.

So, let's put aside ideologies, but not our national values, put our hands into the grease of the malfunctioning bicycle chain and devise and implement the needed fix.  That's what our founders did in 1787, when the damaging flaws of the Articles of Confederation had become apparent.  The difference here, however, is that we don't have to throw away the old bike.  We need to fix only the one defective part of it.  In the case of our Presidential election system, an increasing number of commentators, scholars, and public and political figures recognize that the appropriate remedy can and should be implemented at the state level, not at the level of the federal government.  We should get on with the job.


What if 

One speculation about the national popular vote is that it could permit someone to win the presidency without gaining a large fraction of the popular vote.

Another way to say this is that the national popular vote could give a third-party a chance to be more than a spoiler like Nader in 2000 or Perot arguably in 1992. 

Therefore, arguably, the Electoral College is useful because it creates a majority by the terms of the Constitution.  If there is no majority in the Electoral College the selection process moves to method number two, which is choice in the House of Representatives. If no one obtains a majority of delegation votes there, then the Senate picks the president. 

So goes the claim. 

Let’s unpack it. 

First, the supposition is that a majority in the Electoral College creates legitimacy even if underlying it there is no majority in the popular vote. Indeed, the loser of the popular vote can garner that majority. 

It is difficult to know what to say about an argument premised on the view that a loser of the popular vote gains legitimacy through a selection system that ignores the popular vote. Isn’t this dread circularity? And who is supposed to concede that legitimacy? Certainly not the voters and yet aren’t they the only relevant audience? Remember, under our current system, it is possible for a candidate to win a two-party race while getting as little as 23% of the popular vote.

Second, if we assume that instead of two major parties, three or four or five or six each gain meaningful shares of the total, then it is unlikely any candidate wins a majority of electors, and so the House selects the president on a state by state vote. But if multiple significant parties exist then the House has already divided into multiple blocks akin to many parliaments. The likely outcome is that no candidate wins 26 delegations as required. 

Then the Senate decides. There disproportionality rules. States with tiny fractions of the populace can play the deciding role. Legitimacy is not the outcome. 

Third, this speculation presupposes that major third parties and fourth parties and fifth parties would come out of nowhere to nominate viable presidential candidates. That’s crazy. 

History indeed shows that and political parties do not last forever. Famously the Republican party once was a new thing competing for preeminence. 

But the job of winning the presidency through the national popular vote in big America requires resources of vast scale. The barriers to entry for a spoiler party with the electoral college system are trivial. But the threshold cost for a serious third-party candidate to win the necessary minimum of 34% of the vote in a three-person contest is so high that in fact the national popular vote system would not permit the existence of more than two or three viable major parties, and it would require any or all of these parties to create big tents containing multiple factions. Compromises would have to be reached within the parties for them to achieve national scale. It would be impossible for a winning party to be mostly a one race, one language, one ethnicity, dominantly single gender, nativist block. Not saying that exists, but doesn’t the electoral system enable that option?



Karl Rove’s Weak Defense of the Electoral College

In his editorial, “The Lovely but Unloved Electoral College,” appearing in the April 10, 2019 Wall Street Journal, former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove does not so much defend the Electoral College but attempts to minimize its failings and paints a parade of horribles that he imagines would descend if the system were altered.  If anything, much of his defense of the current system is an argument for its alteration.

First, Rove states that there is “zero chance” of abolishing the Electoral College because it would take a constitutional amendment. While he is correct that an amendment is unlikely, he is wrong that there is no other way for the system to change. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is an agreement among states to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote once states with 270 electoral votes join the Compact.  Right now, fourteen states plus DC have passed the Compact, totaling 189 votes—70% of the way to becoming effective.  There is tremendous momentum behind the Compact, with Oregon likely to be the next state to join with 7 additional electoral votes.

Rove does not argue that it is good that the Electoral College sometimes means a person becomes president despite the fact that more voters preferred another candidate.  Instead, he argues that splits between the Electoral College and the national popular vote are a “rare divergence” explained by “extenuating circumstances.”

But these “circumstances” are in fact strong arguments for reform. He argues that the only reason George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 is because the TV networks prematurely called Florida for Gore at 8:02 Eastern time, while many western states were still voting.  Rove does not provide a citation for his assertion that “Republicans were more likely to be discouraged and stay home, probably costing George W. Bush several hundred thousand votes and two states, New Mexico and Oregon,” but even if it were true, this is a good reason why the country would do better under the popular vote.  If all votes count equally, it will be much more difficult for networks or other actors to interfere with the results, intentionally or otherwise, while votes are still being cast.

Rove also asserts that “Winning GOP candidates may have fallen short in the popular vote in 1876 and 1888 only because the black Republican vote in the South was being extinguished by violence.” What he doesn’t mention is how the Electoral College meant that even if they had been able to vote, the votes of African Americans in the south would not have counted because they could not get a plurality in the states where they lived, a problem that persists to this day.

More important than past elections is the likelihood that the Electoral College will thwart the will of the people in the future. Rove notes that there have only been five Electoral College/popular vote splits out of 58 elections, but fails to note that splits have occurred in two out of the last five elections, and two out of the last three open elections. Our analysis shows that, far from becoming more and more rare, splits will become increasingly likely when the outcome rests on just a few swing states.  In close elections, there will be a split in up to 32% of elections, with neither party having a long-term advantage.

Next, Rove suggests that a number of consequences would befall our nation if we switched to a national popular vote: there would be recounts needed in many states, third parties would multiply, and small states would be ignored.  But those are all problems that exist in a worse form under the current system than under a popular vote. 

  • A popular vote election involving hundreds of millions of voters would be unlikely to be close enough to need multiple recounts, unlike the winner-take-all Electoral College where the election can turn on a few hundred voters in a single state.

  • Right now, a third party candidate could theoretically win the election with only 23% of the vote. Under a popular vote, a third party would at least have to get more votes than anyone else. Further, many Americans feel disenchanted with the two major parties and would welcome real third party challenges, perhaps in combination with ranked-choice voting

  • Finally, small states, as well as most big and medium-sized states, are already ignored by candidates who instead lavish almost all of their attention on big swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania. 

Rove claims that “[t]he Founders knew what they were doing. Abolishing the Electoral College is an awful idea.”  But though the Founders were brilliant men, they were not omniscient. They came up with a compromise that reached the necessary votes—and that was constrained by the hard limits on travel and communications at the time—but which they themselves acknowledged was not perfect.  More importantly, it bore very little resemblance to the Electoral College as it operates now. It was, according to Hamilton, meant to be a deliberative body of a “small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, [who] will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations” as choosing the president.  Of course, the reality is far different.

It is time to work within the confines of the Constitution to allow the people to choose the president. Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution allows the states to determine how electors are appointed. If state law in enough jurisdictions directed the electors to pledge their votes to the winner of the national popular vote, campaigns would have to look everywhere for votes instead of focusing on a few swing states. Only then will every vote matter equally.



Victims of the Electoral College

Farmers have been doubly hit this year by a trade war with China and extreme flooding. All the states afflicted by this catastrophe are taken for granted in the general election because of the Electoral College. There are 60 million Americans in rural counties. They would have real clout if all their votes were added together in a national tally.  

Because they are not, the trade war and the lack of investment in infrastructure are a pair of punches in the gut. 



Oregon Senate Passes National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

On April 9, the Oregon Senate passed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact with bipartisan support. The bill now goes to the Oregon House, where identical bills have been passed four times since 2007. In addition, Oregon Governor Kate Brown has stated she supports the proposal.

If Oregon joins the Compact, it will have 196 of the 270 votes it needs to become effective.



Efforts to Reform our Presidential Selection System Long Predate our Current Polarized Political Climate

Many have criticized advocates of a national popular vote as simply wishing to change the results of a single contentious election. But the problems inherent in the winner-take-all Electoral College have existed long before 2016. Candidates from both parties are practically required to spend all their time, effort, and money on just a few close states while ignoring the majority of the country.

Efforts to reform the system are not new either. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wisely wrote all the way back in 2007, when Maryland became the first state to enact the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact:

The democratic solution is for legislatures to agree to use their electoral votes to support the winner nationally. …

Opponents of popular election invent scary scenarios to continue subjecting our 21st-century nation to a system invented in the far less democratic 18th century. Most frequently, they warn about having to conduct a nationwide recount in a close election.

But direct election of presidents works just fine in France and in Mexico, which managed to get through a divisive, terribly narrow presidential election last year. Are opponents of the popular vote saying our country is less competent at running elections than France or Mexico?

Here's hoping Maryland sets off a quiet revolution that brings our nation's electoral practice into line with our democratic rhetoric. Individual citizens should have the right to elect their president -- directly.



Our Towns

Among the many evils of the electoral system is this: it divides the votes in small towns by partitioning them into 50 states. These towns' citizens are then outvoted by the citizens of the larger towns and cities in each state. 

But the interests of small towns are distinctly different. As explained here, small towns in the West have figured out how to have vibrant economies, to attract young people and immigrants, to balance opportunity with quality of life. In the Midwest, small towns have lagged behind. Federal policy should learn from successful small towns and try to repeat these successes elsewhere.

There are more than 18,000 small towns (population less than 25,000). They contain more than 30 million people. This huge voting block would be important to any party's nominee if only the national vote mattered. Instead, with the winner-take-all curse and the disregard of runner-up votes that are both part of the electoral system, the small town voting block isn't a block at all. It is just an outvoted minority in virtually every state.

Some defenders of the current system conjure up the notion that small towns and rural interests are advanced by the electoral college. The exact opposite is the case. 

Some also claim that presidential candidates would ignore small towns. That is what they do now. If every vote mattered, candidates in the presidential election would advertise in small town newspapers, on small town radio, and on the nearest broadcast TV station carried by the small town cable system. They would use email and social media to reach small town voters everywhere in the country. They might even have a bus tour through small towns a la Clinton-Gore in 1992. 

The importance of swing states in the existing system sucks attention from small towns. The pluralities in the swing states are won by urban and suburban turn-out. 

Nothing about the current system motivates candidates in the general election to pay attention to the 30 million small town voters. So they are angry with reason, and democracy is in their interest. Not that politicians are telling them that. This truth would threaten the political power structure in every state. 

Nor do commentators explain to small town citizens that the current system hurts them. 

Why not? Because historians and law professors do not understand the perniciousness of the existing system; political scientists since the death of Robert Dahl have burrowed into intellectual tunnels and left democracy poorly examined; and presidents and their media followers prioritize urban and suburban viewers over small town audiences.


No, California and New York would not be the only states that matter under a national popular vote

One of the most common criticisms of a national popular vote is that New York and California would decide every election, with candidates ignoring the rest of the country. But as conservative writer Robert Robb notes, “In 2016, California and New York cast 16 percent of all the votes for president.”

Sixteen percent of the electorate is not nearly enough to win a national election, even if everyone in those states voted the same way, which they never have and never would. In 2016, 7.3 million people in New York and California voted for the Republican candidate, and many more Republicans probably would have voted if they believed there was any chance their vote would count.

Under a national popular vote, a candidate who spends all of his or her time and resources in New York and California is a candidate who will lose by a landslide.