Popular Vote Support

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.

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.

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.

Think the National Popular Vote Would Always Help Democrats? Not So Fast

Conventional wisdom says that choosing the president by national popular vote would help Democrats and hurt Republicans.  But that is not necessarily the case.  MEVC’s own analysis shows that under the current, winner-take-all Electoral College system, a split between the winners of the Electoral College and the popular vote will happen about a third of the time in close elections—and neither party is likely to have a long-term advantage.

A growing number of Republicans have recognized that the national popular vote may be the best way to build winning coalitions going forward, and that any apparent benefit the current system has to Republicans may only be temporary. As Susan Crabtree explains in RealClearPolitics:

To [Republicans], the equation is clear: Defending the traditional system puts the GOP in the best position for President Trump to win a second term. But some Republicans wonder if the conventional wisdom is short-sighted. For starters, these contrarians are concerned with how the existing Electoral College dynamic has reduced civic engagement in whole areas of the country, from the deeply red South, rural Plains and mountain West to the millions of essentially disenfranchised Republicans in Democrat-dominated California. Such places are ignored every four years as the two major parties and their respective presidential tickets spend almost all of their time and treasure in roughly a dozen battleground states.

Of more pressing concern, these GOP contrarians also point out that the electoral map that currently favors them is not set in stone.

… Republicans who support shifting to greater reliance on the popular vote argue that in five to 10 years, their candidates may find themselves at a disadvantage even under the current system. That’s because demographics are changing palpably and Republicans might well lose their ability to win the important swing state of Florida, and possibly even the GOP anchor state of Texas.

We should not consider a national popular vote because of any perceived short-term gain to one party over another. Instead, consider the benefits that are lasting. A guarantee that all votes would count equally.  A truly national campaign.  And a promise that your federal disaster relief won’t be contingent on whether you live in a swing state. Sometimes the Democratic candidate would win; sometimes the Republican. But every voter would have a chance to weigh in on the decision.

The Amendment Process is Too Slow, Unnecessary

In this article the very smart E. J. Dionne suggests that it is time for some constitutional amendments, starting with an amendment to get rid of the Electoral College. A number of senators have also introduced such an amendment, despite publicly acknowledging that such a change would be a long shot.

Dionne does not, however, mention the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

There’s no reason why anyone should wait for the miracle of a constitutional amendment (a super majority in Congress plus three-fourths of the states) to occur before having the national popular vote pick the president. The Compact does the job, and now has 189 votes committed. Oregon will probably pass it next soon. Momentum is building. So why not mention it?

The goal here should be to have candidates compete nationally. The reason we want candidates to compete nationally is that we want parties and presidents to try to respond to the majority will. This is critically important to the survival of the republic. As Dionne notes, “faith in the fairness and representativeness of our system will continue to erode if we make a habit of allowing popular-vote losers to ascend to the Oval Office.”

If the states can band together in a compact, it will produce the same result as an amendment: national campaigns. So smart people ought to think of the practical methods to make this happen. 

The worst, most impractical of all methods would be to wait for a constitutional amendment which might occur on approximately the 12th of never. And maybe not then. 

A Big Day for the National Popular Vote

Yesterday, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, officially bringing the total number of committed electoral votes to 189 from fourteen states and the District of Columbia.  Once states with a total of 270 votes join the Compact, all the member states will allocate their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote. 

And in Oregon, the Compact passed a Senate Committee and is headed for a vote in the full Senate.  The bill has support among Democratic and Republican legislators in Oregon, and seems likely to pass.  Oregon has 7 electoral votes.

How to Make Every Vote Count—With or Without a Constitutional Amendment

Today, Senators Brian Schatz, Dick Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. 

This is not the first time such an amendment has been introduced. The constitutional amendment process is long and arduous.  But there is another way to change the system: states could agree to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Some have criticized the Compact as an end-run around the Constitution. To the contrary, the Constitution specifically gives states the right to allocate their electors as they see fit. Further, as Seth Masket explains for Vox, the states have already moved far away from the original system the founders envisioned:

Indeed, the way that the Electoral College is currently implemented and has been practiced over the past two centuries bears little similarity to the way the founders originally described it. This is no council of elites carefully deliberating over the ideal president; electors, with very few exceptions, simply vote the way their states’ voters did, in many cases risking legal penalty for not doing so. This was an adaptation of the Constitution, not an amendment to it.

Arizona Conservative: The President Should be Chosen by Popular Vote

Columnist Robert Robb explains that the current, winner-take-all Electoral College is not what the Founders envisioned for our system, and how it distorts our elections and policy:

In modern politics, however, the principal effect of the Electoral College is to give all the attention to the handful of swing states that might go either way. Except for fundraising, the rest of the country is ignored once the general election rolls around. 

That’s not healthy. And it weakens the extent to which election outcomes are accepted as a legitimate expression of the popular will.

In the modern era, everyone’s vote for the president should carry the same weight and be equally valued and sought by the candidates.

Ohio State Representatives Debate the National Popular Vote

Representative David Leland (D-Columbus) has introduced the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact in Ohio, along with co-sponsors Kristin Boggs, Janine R. Boyd, Catherine D. Ingram, Mary Lightbody, Michael Skindell, and Kent Smith. On March 13, 2019, the House Federalism Committee debated the bill. Below is an account of the points Representative Leland made in favor of the bill, and his responses to critics.

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New Hampshire Considers the National Popular Vote

In February 2017, New Hampshire Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan voiced support for replacing the Electoral College with a popular vote system, but lamented that such a change would require a constitutional amendment, “which, as Hassan put it, would be ‘a challenge,’ at the very least.”

However, there is no need to get mired down in the constitutional amendment process when our system already gives states the power to award their electors to the winner of the national popular vote. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has already been passed by jurisdictions equaling 189 electoral votes. Once states with 270 electoral votes enact the Compact, it will go into effect and the person who gets the most votes will become the president.

New Hampshire could be the next state to pass the Compact, which is currently under consideration as House Bill 541.  New Hampshire newspaper Concord Monitor has endorsed the Compact because it will make candidates court voters outside of swing states and will make every vote matter across the country:

The Electoral College system leads candidates to ignore states that they consider sure winners or losers and focus on swing states like Florida, Ohio and New Hampshire. It leads presidents, as can be seen by Trump’s 10 visits to Ohio since he took office, to curry favor with swing states while in office and ignore states they don’t believe will support their re-election.

Replacing the Electoral College with a system that rewards the winner of the popular vote would give candidates an incentive to compete in every state. As in other elections, the person who wins the most votes should become president, not the candidate who, with a minority of votes in winner-take-all system, is declared the winner by the Electoral College.

The National Popular Vote compact is a way to restore fairness to the system without amending the Constitution. It would make future presidents more legitimate rather than accidents of an outdated and flawed system.

Let All the People Pick the President

Numerous Democratic presidential candidates want to get rid of the Electoral College. On the other hand, the only Republican candidate says that the system is “brilliant” because if all citizens in a single national vote chose the president then he and his rival Democratic nominee would pay no attention to anyone living in a small state or the Midwest.

Everyone can see that the Democrats believe their nominee would win the national popular vote, and President Trump, having said he could have won in 2016, might not be confident that he could pull that off in 2020. Nothing is surprising about politicians wanting rules of the game that help them win.

But neither Republicans nor Democrats are mentioning the three sins of the current system. Regardless of which candidates a national popular vote would favor, these clearly call for abandonment of an 18th century system designed to protect slavery and solve the logistical problems of travel in a pre-telegraph era.

First, because the pluralities in more than 40 states are predictable in these tribal times, in the general election the two major party campaigns ignore those states in which more than 80% of Americans live. Their indifference to turn-out in those states causes total voter participation to fall between 20 and 80 million votes short of the levels that would be reached if every vote counted in picking the president. Disinterest and disgust come from voter indifference – people who know they are ignored justly harbor resentment that undermines trust in government. 

Second, because the general election presidential campaigns don’t pay much attention to four out of five Americans, the parties and their nominees do not offer promises, platforms or policies that most Americans want. Huge majorities register their desire for sensible compromises and good legislation on immigration, infrastructure, clean power, better support for child care and a host of other common-sense measures. The candidates don’t need votes from most people, so they don’t pay attention to most people during the election cycle and then when in office.   

Third, because the result in presidential election is dictated by small margins in perhaps only four states – currently, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – billions of dollars are spent by the two parties in badgering voters and wooing political leaders in these states. The politicians might enjoy the attention. The people in those states do not. They get little or nothing out of robocalls, door knocks, and Facebookery that mark over-intensive campaigning. In Iowa or New Hampshire in the primaries voters actually get to meet the candidates. From September to November every four years the proverbial swing voters just get digitally bludgeoned.

To build some trust between the people and the politically powerful, to give most people what most people want out of government, and to spread the pain of political campaigns fairly and more bearably over the whole country, it is time to let the people pick the president.

Losing Argument

This piece admits that none of the arguments for the Electoral College are valid. It doesn’t protect small states. It doesn’t force candidates to go everywhere. Instead, Ross Douthat claims, the one merit of the system is that it allows a regional minority to elect a president against the wishes of the whole country.

This is the ultimate condemnation of the system. The great—or I should say horrible—example of history is that the electoral college perpetuated white supremacy for more than two centuries. That was what a regional minority wanted and thanks to the electoral college was able to keep in place. Even now the views of a regional minority distort politics on ethnic grounds. I won’t go into this more because it is too depressing.

The point is that in a fair system, what most people want as policy is what politics should give most people—except to the degree that the individual rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights must be protected. 

The current electoral system frustrates most people and that includes most people in the Midwest. A poll MEVC did last week showed a large majority of people in Ohio think the country is on the wrong track. This is a state that voted for Donald Trump by a huge margin. According to the people in that state his victory has not given them a good future. Time for a change of the system. Let every American participate equally in picking the president. 

Why Conservatives Should Support the National Popular Vote

From Republican activist Brian Laurens in the Washington Times:

If you a conservative residing in the deeply red and rural South, you’re taken for granted every four years while the Republican ticket pours almost all of its time and money into 12 so-called “battleground” states. There’s basically no reason to even bother to vote.

All together in 2016, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana delivered 5,971,583 popular votes and 45 electoral votes to the TrumpPence ticket — exactly one-sixth of the 270 electoral votes necessary to elect a president. Yet, just four of the 151 major Republican general election events held across the country took place in those five deeply red states.

It’s easy to understand why campaigns treat their most solid supporters so offhandedly. Why, they reason, should we waste precious resources in states where we are so far ahead we can’t possibly lose? (Or, for that matter, in states where they are so far behind they can’t possibly win.) So, while 38 states sit on the political sidelines, the real campaign takes place in 12 battleground states with big blocks of electoral votes, and a propensity to swing them back and forth between red and blue every four years.

As a result, Americans don’t elect a president of the United States of America. Rather, they elect a president of the Battleground States of America.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which has already passed 14 states and the District of Columbia with a current 186 electoral votes, would change that situation dramatically.

Knowing they need to win the popular vote in order to be awarded 270 electoral votes and the White House, candidates would be compelled to conduct truly national campaigns, seeking out every voter in every nook and cranny of the nation. The Democratic ticket kissing babies in rural red Kansas, while the Republican ticket mines for conservatives in blue Oregon. Just imagine that.

Legal Scholar Paul Smith Makes the Case for the National Popular Vote

From the Campaign Legal Center:

“Under the U.S. Constitution, states have the power to determine how they award their electoral votes in national elections. States are increasingly showing that the will of their voters is to do away with the winner-take-all laws, which award all of its electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes within the state. They are signing up for the National Popular Vote Compact.”

The Winner-Take-All Electoral College Benefits Big Battlegrounds, Not Small States

One of the most prominent argument in favor of keeping our current electoral system in place is that it keeps small states from becoming ignored. But in reality, the Electoral College is not doing much to promote the relevance of small states. From the New York Times:

The Electoral College’s small-state bias had essentially nothing to do with Donald J. Trump’s victory. In fact, he won seven of the 10 largest states, and Hillary Clinton won seven of the 12 smallest states.

Over all, the Electoral College’s bias toward small states probably cost her a net of four votes — essentially nothing.

If there is a benefit to protecting small states, the Electoral College is not doing a great job of providing it. Big states can dominate small ones under the system, and they have done so at times.