A Path Towards Democracy

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Connecticut becomes 11th state to join multi-state compact to ensure winner of popular vote becomes president 

In every election in the United States, the winner of the election is the person who wins the most votes. Every election except one: the choice of the president and the vice president.

For that election, voters mark who they want on the ballot but they are not really choosing the nominees. Instead they are choosing a slate of electors who have been nominated by the party that also nominated the candidates for the two highest executive offices whose names are on the ballot.

In many states the electors' names are not even on the ballot. In no state can a voter pick and choose among electors. A bare plurality selects an entire slate (in all but two states, more on them later). The winner-take-all system causes all the voters for the loser in a state to get no representation in the Electoral College. That, by the way, is not in the Constitution. States (except for two) have chosen this system, and the reasons are not so appealing. More on that later too.

One person = one vote

Everyone agrees that in a truly democratic system every vote honestly cast by every eligible voter anywhere in the country would be added together. Every vote in every state would have equal weight. One person = one vote.

The candidate with the most votes would become president.

Twice in the current century the person who won the national popular vote plurality was not chosen president by the Electoral College. As it happens I went to high school with one of those National Popular Vote winners/Electoral College losers and to law school with the other. So I remember the events on a personal level.

But we do not know who would have won the most votes in the country in either of these elections -- or for that matter in any election at all -- because with the current system the candidates do not run to win the most votes in the country.

Of course the rules of a game determine how it is played. The rules of the Electoral College game dictate that the candidates must win not the most support from the American people but instead 270 electors. Neither the Republican nor Democratic candidates even try to get most Americans to vote for them.

In the 20th century, the two major party candidates, however, did tend to campaign in many states. That is because they had a reasonable chance of winning many states in many regions as a path to winning the Electoral College. New York was a swing state in the 1970s and for most of the 1980s. California went Republican in the 1980s. Texas voted for Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton carried southern states. Even though the system was not truly democratic it did at least approximate a democratic method.

But in the 21st century, increased urbanization and increased polarization has caused both campaigns to realize that as many as 40 states are not contestable (more about this in a future blog post). The 40 are going to go Democratic or Republican pretty much regardless of who either party nominates. The number of contestable states has shrunk really to less than 10: only six states had popular vote margins less than 2 percent in the 2016 election.

As a result, both parties can and do ignore the wishes of most Americans when they shape their campaign messages. Why pay attention to voters who cannot amount to a plurality or to voters whose preferences can be taken for granted?

The candidates nowadays do not even try to get most people to vote. The Republican nominees do not try to get Republican-leaning voters to vote in California and the Democratic nominees do not try to get their potential voters to vote in Texas.

People are ignored, turnout drops, and citizens increasingly see that the game of politics drifts away from what they want.

In the all-important presidential contest, most of us become mere spectators to the sport of politics. This might be decent television fare, but it ain't democracy.

As a result, most Americans would like to see the electoral system changed, including the man who most recently benefited from it.   

“Well, it's an election based on the Electoral College. I would rather have a popular election, but it's a totally different campaign.”
President Donald J. Trump on Fox & Friends, April 26, 2018

Out of concern that their voters' votes do not currently matter, states have been joining an interstate compact, in which they agree to allocate all of their electoral votes in the coming presidential elections to the winner of the popular vote. The compact will take effect once states that joined aggregate 270 electoral votes. 

On May 24th, Governor Malloy of Connecticut signed House Bill 5421, entering his state as the 12th jurisdiction to join the National Popular Vote Compact, which now has a collective total of 172 electoral votes. Many years went into reaching this victory, years of tireless efforts by grassroots activists and political pressure in Hartford to convince the General Assembly. Success required bipartisan cooperation, especially in the Connecticut Senate, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. And no less important, when the law was presented on the House and Senate floor, legislators knew beyond a doubt that Connecticut voters were clamoring for the state to join the Compact. Polls commissioned by Making Every Vote Count had made it abundantly clear to legislators that it was not only a popular policy locally but also important to their standing with constituents. As House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz summed it up, “I would not want to explain as I’m standing at the polling center on Nov 8th this year that ‘Oh, by the way, I didn't support that when 80 percent of my constituents do.’”

Along with some new and old friends, I incorporated Making Every Vote Count, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization aiming to educate and inform about the effect on our democracy of the current presidential selection system. The purpose of the next 100 or so segments on this blog (which will also appear in excerpts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) will be to illuminate the issues and discuss different ways to go forward to the sunny uplands of a truly democratic system for electing the president and the vice president.

We can all agree that the United States should again be the city on a hill, a beacon for democracy that shines for all its people and all the people of the world. That's the founding principle of our non-profit. Please follow our blog and sign up as a supporter to find out how you can help rebuild our democracy.