Popular Vote Support

Who is Gary Abernathy and How Did He Get Printed in WaPo?

Washington Post fact-checkers must be up in arms about the howlers in this Gary Abernathy article, October 25, 2018. Or maybe it’s the in-house logicians who are crying into their keyboards.

Item 1: He wrote: “American history resists the notion of a majority fully imposing its will on a minority.” He meant, presumably, that throughout history most Americans repeatedly have been denied the opportunity to have a government reflect their wishes. His statement is the principal reason why the person who wins the most votes in the whole country should always become the president.

Item 2: He claims Democrats would “almost assuredly be defending the [presidential selection] system” if their candidates had lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College. Apparently, he defends the system for the same utterly self-interested reason; namely, his preferred candidates used it to deny the will of the people. This also is an argument for changing to a democratic method of choosing the president.

Item 3: He asserts that the United States is a “collection of individual states.” Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address quashed this specious assertion: “The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution, was "to form a more perfect Union."

Item 4:  He says the “electoral college exists to protect” the “social and geographic interests” of states. People have “social and geographic interests” and they are best protected when their communities, geographic, demographic, religious, ethnic, familial, or even tribal, can vote with each vote counted equally for the political preferences that their interests lead them to have.

Item 5: “Our nation settled on the electoral college” as part of “protecting and valuing each state.” Actually, the slave state-small state alliance demanded that the anti-democratic, inequitable advantages they obtained in the compromise over the composition of the Senate and House be perpetuated in the method of choosing the president. The slave states did not want a chief executive who would oppose the expansion, or maintenance, of slavery. What was “valued” was, principally, slavery.

Item 6: “States are largely awarded electoral votes commensurate with their population.” So he claims, and then he compares West Virginia to California, noting that California has 20 times as many people and only 11 times as many electors. I do not think “commensurate” means what Abernathy thinks it means.

Item 7:  If the president were the person who won the national popular vote, then a “disproportionate majority of voters from the largest states” would be “imposing their will on the more vulnerable minority in smaller states.” There are many things wrong with this sentence, but I conclude with noting only three: (i) a majority is not “disproportionate” under a popular vote system; it is proportionate to the votes cast; (2) under the existing, anti-democratic system the “vulnerable” minorities in every state are “imposed” upon because their votes for the runner-up are discarded, meaning never counted with like-minded voters in other states possibly to form a majority opinion; (3) no candidate seeking a national win would ignore voters anywhere, because campaigns are not that dumb, whereas in the current system the two major parties do not campaign in about 40 states, with more than 80% of the population.  

Things Have Changed

In 1981 Neal Peirce and Lawrence Longley revised The People’s President.

A key quote:

“…we must ask ourselves: to what world does our presidential election system really correspond? Is it adapted to a modern technological society in a politically mature nation, where every American considers the ballot his birthright? Or is more a vestige of the world of two centuries past, when voting was haphazard, the secret ballot scarcely known, the society disjointed and spread of a vast frontier?”

From the vantage point of 2018, the dichotomy seems endearingly quaint, and not nearly dramatic enough to address the real crisis apparent in America – namely, can we have a system of government that most people think is both fair and reasonably well-working.

On the one hand, the presidential selection system causes the candidates to take for granted and hence ignore more than 80% of the population. Instead of every American considering the ballot a birthright, almost everyone is aware of how little the participants care about their preference for president. The angry ones do the choosing and structurally everyone else is marginalized: so it seems.

On the other hand, in the modern era voting is “haphazard.” Social networks and identity politics strip secrecy from everyone’s probably choice. The society seems more “disjointed” than in the lifetime of the longest-living among us. And the virtual world is a disturbingly “vast frontier.”

So neither on the one hand nor the other is there a happy choice. Time for a new method.

Blast From the Past

The great historian C. Vann Woodward (author of The Strange Career of Jim Crow) wrote in the New Republic in 1968 that “Little can be said in defense of an electoral college in which one vote represents 75,389 in Alaska and another 392,930 in California.”

The skew nowadays is worse, and with more than 50% now in only nine states, it is irrefutable that the current presidential system is grossly unfair to most Americans. Indeed, only in Maryland and Oregon can it be noted that the percentage of electors is the same as the percentage of the population relative to the whole country. In two states, the system is fair. In 48 plus the District of Columbia the system gives either too much or too little weight to the preferences of citizens in the choice of the president.

In addition to state-by-state inequity, Woodward also noted, “If the sacred rights of minorities are cited, one should recall that in the 11 elections from 1908 to 1948, 44% of the popular vote cast by minority voters was not represented by a single electoral vote.”

Woodward was reviewing Neal Peirce’s The People’s President: The Electoral College in American History and the Direct Vote, which he called a “useful handbook and history of…maladies of the electoral system.” It’s time for another such book, because the sickness has gotten worse, and threatens the survival of the Republic.

Peirce reported that by 1966 513 resolutions for constitutional amendments reforming the system had been introduced in Congress and only one succeeded: the 12th Amendment ratified in 1804 to fix the screwy Jefferson-Burr result that Alexander Hamilton resolved, to his ultimate death, now perhaps the most well-sung story in American history.

However, at the time of Peirce’s book and Woodward’s review no one seemed aware that states acting alone or together can adopt a different system for choosing electors.


Despite reports of voter enthusiasm at record highs in anticipation of closely contested midterm elections, the Washington Post reports that many eligible voters will nevertheless decline to vote on November 6th.

Would Americans vote more often in general if their votes for president were guaranteed to matter? Such would be the case if the president were elected by a national popular vote. Research suggests that voting may indeed be “habit forming”, so if more Americans voted in presidential elections, turnout in the midterms would likely follow suit.

Brennan Center: Voter Roll Purging Remains High in GA, NC, and FL

The Brennan Center for Justice released a report following up on their analysis of the widespread purges of voter rolls throughout the South leading up to the 2016 election. The report finds that in Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia, the exceptionally high rates of purges has not declined. The rates of purging continue to be alarmingly high in these 3 states when compared to those before the 2006 and 2008 presidential election and others.

In recent two year periods, North Carolina has purged 11.7% of its registered voters from its list, Georgia has purged 10.6%, and Florida over 7%. The timing of the increased purges coincides with the Supreme Court’s Shelby ruling which in 2013 that “struck down a part of the Voting Rights Act that required nine states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain federal approval when altering their election laws.

Would state officials have the same perverse incentives to trim their voting rolls of prior eligible voters if the winner-take-all electoral system were not in practice by all three of these states?

Kerry Lost Popular Vote But Nearly Won Electoral College

This post is part of a series of new research released by Making Every Vote Count.

In 2004, John Kerry lost national popular vote but nearly won electoral college…

•Kerry was 3 million behind in popular vote

•Kerry had 251 electoral votes

•Ohio with 20 electors would have given him victory

•If 60,000 votes had switched, he would’ve won Ohio’s 20 electors and won the election while losing the popular vote

•But if Ohio had pledged its electors to the popular vote, Kerry could not have won this way

Earnest Dialogue in Michigan

Michigan recently joined three other states—North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania— which all have legislation pending in state legislatures in support of a national popular vote initiative.

Michigan State Senator Mike Shirkey (Republican) introduced the bill into the senate, where it has gone into committee as of September 6th. It was co-sponsored by Senate Republican Eric Leutheuser.

The proposed legislation drew bi-partisan support, and both the Michigan House of Representatives and the State Senate have bills pending which support the national popular vote initiative.

The bi-partisan support is especially noteworthy considering that many Democrats and Republicans in the Michigan’s legislature believe that the popular vote would benefit both parties; it is thought that the passage of national popular vote legislation would give Michigan more influence in the presidential election by increasing the number of votes that matter.

The path to changing the presidential selection system is itself a matter of some contention; while Senator Leutheuser acknowledged that there are “some of the issues with the current electoral system in the U.S.,” he said that his decision to co-sponsor the legislation is “not necessarily an endorsement of the NPVIC [National Popular Vote Interstate Compact], but merely an effort to start an earnest dialogue about it.

At a time when hard-line partisanship and political polarization may seem like insurmountable problems, it is heartening to observe the dialogue opening up at the state level.

Change, it would seem, is not impossible.

States Have All the Say on How They Use Their Electors

According to the Washington Post Democrats are reeling from the nomination battle by complaining about the structure of the United States Senate. The state system for composing  the senate cannot be changed by amendment or otherwise. 

On the other hand, if the incumbent president needed to win the plurality of votes cast in the nation to be reelected then you can believe that presidential appointments to the judiciary or indeed any job would be designed to appeal to the majority of the country. And it does not take a new constitutional convention or even an amendment to change the method of selecting the electors. Any state can do what it wants in this respect.

Turnout Surge in Primaries Indicates 2018 Midterms Will Be Highly Contested

Americans are more aware than ever that their participation in elections is essential to maintaining a healthy government that is accountable and responsive to their voices. Nearly a fifth (19.6%) of registered voters – about 37 million – cast ballots in House primary elections, according to the Pew Research Center. The resurgence in primary voting validates the polls finding that voter enthusiasm is at a record high, just four years after the midterm elections saw the worst turnout since 1942.

We know that Americans do vote when they feel that their vote matters. How many millions more of Americans would vote if we had a national popular vote for president by 2020?

How to Boost Turnout? Create the Proper Incentives for All Parties

At this link you’ll see an article explaining the obstacles states create for voting—or, you could say, the steps the states establish to guarantee that voters are legitimate. But the article misses the main point. Because the presidential selection system takes for granted more than 80% of all voters neither major party has adequate incentive to smooth the path for people to vote. If the major party candidates had to compete to win the national popular vote, then they would each battle to reduce barriers for their likely voters to get to the polls. Each party would still insist that the opposing party not be able to perpetrate voter fraud. Yet, while still insisting on fair practices, each major party would make a concerted effort to increase turnout as much as possible on Election Day. They would have every incentive to boost turnout in every state by reducing unnecessary structural obstacles.

A Clear and Present Danger: and What To Do About It

In this week’s New Yorker, Jane Mayer covers a new body of research by scholars concluding that “in the 2016 election, Putin’s meddling was decisive.” As Mayer’s piece illustrates, the winner-take-all method of electing the president makes states where the presidential contest is closest into the most vulnerable targets of all for foreign manipulation. These same vulnerable states are also the most critical to victory in our current electoral model, given that the winner-take-all system is in use by 48 out of 50 states. The Russian social media attacks on candidates and disinformation campaigns, micro-targeting voters in order to sabotage outcomes in these critical states, were largely successful, according to the new research summarized by Mayer.

If every vote counted equally in every state, foreign adversaries would have a significantly more difficult time making an impact. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, but we would not run the same risk of interference in only two to three states potentially altering an election.

We face a clear and present danger. But we don’t need a Jack Ryan to save us— we need the protection of a national popular vote that matters.

Sliding Away from Democracy: the Case of Poland

Anne Applebaum has published in Atlantic this chilling piece about the Polish move away from democracy. The underlying thesis: some, many perhaps, in Poland think the country is better off if it "is ruled by people who deserve to rule." The fundamental claim for democracy is that all citizens collectively should decide by a majority vote, or at least a healthy plurality, who "deserves to rule." Step one down the dismal Polish slide toward authoritarian illiberal autocracy is for citizens not to vote. The easiest way to convince people not to vote is to adopt a system in which their votes don't matter. So, to make a big story really short, Poland and the United States need to make sure that every citizen's vote really matters -- matters to the decision about who rules, matters so much that the candidates for president want and need to win most votes, matters in determining the winner, matters as much as everyone else's vote (because unequal voting power means someone's vote doesn't matter as much, and maybe doesn't matter at all). 

The United States should make sure that all votes for president matter in all these senses, and the winner of the presidential election should commit to persuading Poland and every other country of the world that following the example of this reform will make every country better off.

The Supreme Court and the National Popular Vote

The Supreme Court as an institution would be a big winner if presidential candidates had to win the national popular vote in order to prevail in the Electoral College. Why? Because the majority of people in the country prefer relatively non-partisan moderate judges who do not have an aggressively liberal or conservative philosophy. And the less political the Court appears to be, the greater the respect and approval it obtains from the populace. 

But I am a graduate of Yale Law so take this comment with lots of salt. 

Allowing Democratic Decline Means Stifling Economic Growth

We should be concerned about the decline of democracy around the world for many reasons, and one of them is the harm that abandoning democracy would inflict on national economies.

That stands to reason given a new study published by the University of Chicago (Acemoglu, Naidu, et. al). The study, entitled “Democracy Does Cause Growth” concludes that “democratizations increase GDP per capita by about 20% in the long run”.

In short, democracy leads to growth and prosperity. The global trend in movements against democratic governance is therefore a great threat, not only to the erosion of freedom and civil liberties, but also the economic well-being of all citizens.

On the other side of things, is it possible that making our democratic institutions more robust— for example by implementing the National Popular Vote— could cause an increase in GDP or even prevent a future recession?