Republican strategist Mark Mackowiak uses facts to refute some of the most common myths about the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, including that it would give advantages to cities over rural areas.
How would the major parties and their candidates behave if they had to win the national popular vote plurality to become president? Making Every Vote Count will hold a conference on October 7, 2019 in Washington, DC to discuss answers to this question.
Here are my somewhat speculative beliefs.
We have to start with a point of view about what happens in the general election of the president. Mine is that this is right: “boosting turnout [in the general election], primary election persuasion, and perhaps persuasion in special elections [such as for ballot measures] are possible…But evidence of persuasion in general elections remained negligible.”
If turnout is the chief goal of the major parties in the general election, then it follows that each of the two will define their bases in a new and different way. Namely, in the first instance they will pay little attention to the geographic location of their likely voters. No longer will they focus on how to obtain a plurality in a handful of states. No more will they identify voters primarily according to zip code and census tract.
Instead, the campaigns, with their billions of dollars, will determine how to achieve a majority of the votes (they need a plurality but will aim at majorities, not knowing how many votes a third or fourth party candidacy may siphon away from the two major parties). To do this calculation, they will analyze the tendencies of all those likely to vote, and also those who are registered but less likely to vote, in every precinct in the country.
Based on the analysis, the Republicans and Democrats will determine the left-right political leaning of the likely and less likely voters. Presumably they will discover that about 45% of the possible national electorate is inclined one way or the other, and about 10% is undecided. That is what most polls suggest.
For these two different bases of their leaners, the Republicans and Democrats will then divide the potential voters into demographic segments. Each segment will be defined by age, gender, religion, race, favorite spoken language. They will poll each segment nationally in order to determine policy preferences.
For example, do Democratic-leaning old Hispanic females attach great priority to preserving Social Security and Medicare? If so, then the Democratic nominee will highlight his or her commitment to that policy, perhaps in Spanish language advertisements, and bewail the risk to these benefits that the Republican nominee will present.
As another example, do Republican-leaning middle aged white males fear an assault weapon ban by a Democratic president? If so, the Republican nominee will want to ask the Democratic nominee in a debate whether he or she will seek such legislation.
Policy will follow pragmatism: the parties are not going to push policies that deny them the possibility of winning the national vote.
The question then presented is how the parties’ policies will change if they must win the national vote to get the prize. My view is that it depends on how many segments need to be bonded into a coalition in order to compose a majority. The Democrats and Republicans have needed only to achieve this feat as against each other in less than ten states. In 2020 they are going to try to build winning coalitions in not many more than Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire, while paying relatively little attention to their respective bases in the rest of the country. But to win a national election, the job of building winning coalitions necessarily will require a different calculation.
It may be that opposition to abortion will still be critical to the Republican Party whereas hostility to immigrants may be politically disastrous. It could be that supporting aggressive government action to move to a clean power platform might be a central plank of a Democratic platform, while support for an open border is anathema. Polling and practice will have to answer these questions.
After figuring out the composition of hypothetical national bases, the parties then will decide how to reach their likely voters. Cost is king. I imagine that neither party has unlimited funds, and in any case during the general election timing matters a great deal. My guess is that for the first time in modern political history the parties will each spend money on national television in order to present – “brand” – their candidates during the summer. They will buy advertising time during the Olympics, the World Series, and nationally broadcast football games. Historically, almost no money has gone to national television, because of course only a handful of states have constituted the battleground and it would be a waste to spend advertising dollars on national shows.
On the other hand, the cost for reaching demographic segments through local radio, local television and local newspapers is fairly low in most regions of the country. This is not true in major urban markets, but it would be very cheap for the two parties to buy local media advertising space in the Dakotas, for instance. For the first time in history, the outlets in thinly populated non battleground states would be a valuable way for either party to reach their bases. While their messages would be different, both parties would be able to generate several hundred thousand turned out voters in the Dakotas very cheaply. In most elections the Republicans have left many voters unsolicited and not encouraged to vote in the thinly populated states. They would not pass up the opportunity to run up the score in these places, while Democratic leaning segments would be less numerous but perhaps even cheaper to reach.
In most states it is probable that the general national election would cause the gap between the two parties to close. This might be uncomfortable for state politicians in whichever party now dominates in a particular state. For instance, there’s little doubt the Republicans would seek turnout in California, as opposed to dedicating no advertising or organizing effort to the state now. The result might be revival of the two party system in the Golden State. Perhaps Democrats would not like that. On other hand, in pursuit of this goal the Republican nominee might favor a compromise policy on immigration.
Social media permits advertisers to target consumers by individual identity, advertising with versioned content to each pair of eyes. Such a capability would be used by both parties to encourage their bases to turn out. Mass media does not enable nearly as much individuation in advertising so it is reasonable to think the current trend of spending proportionally more in campaign dollars on social media would continue.
But the targeted voters would be identified without regard to geography. Social media advertising therefore would enable either party to reach all farmers, all Mormons, all Native Americans – all of any segment. As a result, demographic segments that are ignored, and sometimes derogated, by the current system would have much more importance in the election. They would still be subject to the inexorable law of numerosity: if your group is small, your electoral weight is small. But today many populous groups – African Americans are the leading example – have an inequitably minor impact in the general election, because many of their members are located in states where they are outvoted by people in a different political party and so they choose no electors from those states.
It might be that with national voting suddenly relevant, the Republican Party would need to adopt policies more sympathetic to the concerns of African Americans. Just like in Lincoln’s day.
Surely there are many other consequences to adopting a national system. But for sure many myths would be dispelled. All could see that a national election would empower people in states with low population and rural inhabitants, whereas they are taken for granted now. All would recognize that minorities of many kinds – based on religion, race, etc.—would have to be assembled into coalitions to support either of the major parties, while now they are ignored or taken for granted.
Some will argue too that a national election will threaten the viability of national parties. But there’s no way a regional party can win a national election unless and until the country’s electorate decomposes into at least four or five different regional parties. The existing media are not likely to facilitate this development – they present candidates the way they sell burgers, trucks, and software. Everyone gets the same products, with scarcely any regional variation.
However, in the unlikely event that national elections for president cause the deterioration of the existing Republican and Democratic parties, one can ask two questions. How much will they be missed? And doesn’t that mean the antagonists could agree at last on amending the Constitution to create a run-off so that under all circumstances the winner of the presidency has won a majority of the votes cast in the country?
Presidential elections where the winning candidate loses the national popular vote are becoming the new normal. It’s happened in two out of the last five elections, and would have happened again in 2004 if just 60,000 votes in Ohio had gone the other way. In future elections, we can expect a split between the electoral college and the national popular vote up to 30-40% of the time.
As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne writes:
There is nothing normal or democratic about choosing our president through a system that makes it ever more likely that the candidate who garners fewer votes will nonetheless assume power. For a country that has long claimed to model democracy to the world, this is both wrong and weird.
And there is also nothing neutral or random about how our system works. The electoral college tilts outcomes toward white voters, conservative voters and certain regions of the country. People outside these groups and places are supposed to sit back and accept their relative disenfranchisement. There is no reason they should, and at some point, they won’t. This will lead to a meltdown.
Fortunately, we do not have to accept a status quo that routinely and systematically disenfranchises voters. Under the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, all votes would count equally—no matter who you are or where you live.
The political parties change their shape—their leaders and policies—in order to win political power. In their current forms, they contribute to dividing the populace and intensifying animosity.
One major reason is that they both take for granted the outcomes in more than 40 states, leaving as few as six as the contested battlegrounds that determine the electoral college outcome. In those states, the two parties focus on turning out their base and then appealing to swing voters, but those swing voters do not necessarily represent in full the views of most swing voters in the country as a whole.
As a result, the presidential election system does not encourage either party's nominee to conduct a unifying, holistic campaign. Instead, the two major parties maximize negative campaigning, reflected in the content of their advertising and the themes of policy proposals. After such divisive elections, the country remains as factionalized and internally discontent as before the voting takes place.
This article makes the very strong case that demographic shifts may lead to a “purple” or “blue” Texas in the very near future, making it extremely difficult for Republicans to win in the Electoral College as it exists today. Though some Republicans may oppose reforming the presidential selection system because they believe it confers a benefit to their party, the article urges them to rethink that position:
“[Republicans] warn that without the Electoral College, a few big cities would dominate the process, at the expense of rural areas and states. What they ignore is that 1) the 10 biggest cities have only 8% of the U.S. population and 2) urbanites don’t all vote the same way.
Trump got nearly 4.9 million votes in California and 2.8 million in New York — many of them in small towns and rural counties — but under the Electoral College, those votes meant nothing. Someday, the same may be true for the millions of conservatives in Texas.
Democrats take the peculiar view that each citizen’s vote should carry the same weight. They also contend that the candidate who gets the most votes from actual people should win — which happens to be how races for virtually every other office in the country are decided.
If Republicans want to salvage their future, they would be wise to join with Democrats now in pushing to elect presidents by popular vote. Because once Democrats have the upper hand in the Electoral College, they may just decide to keep it.”
Though it is understandable that both parties view the system—and any proposed reforms, particularly the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact—through the lens of the advantages they perceive to their own party, it is clear that all Americans would benefit from having their votes count equally in deciding who becomes the president.
“Trump campaign officials and sources close to the president tell Axios that they believe Democrats' extraordinary charge that the president is a ‘white supremacist’ will actually help him win in 2020, Axios' Alayna Treene reports.”
If true, this is the electoral college at work. There is no way that this “charge” would help any candidate who had to win the national popular vote. But the demographic mix of the handful of swing states is quite a bit different than the rest of the country, and so this alleged claim by “sources close to the president” could be what they really think.
The Electoral College, of course, has its roots in the country’s attitude toward race. By extending the disproportional power given to the slave states in the House into power of the choice of the president, the system virtually assured that presidents would not limit the perpetuation and even expansion of slavery. This worked until 1860, after which the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments gave the Confederate states still more weight in the House by counting former slaves fully, even while they had little to no chance of sending an elector to vote for the president they wanted.
In different ways now, the Electoral College still tilts the scales of political power against people of color.
Here is a rare article about the economy and the upcoming election that addresses a sad reality: the only economies that really matter are the economies in the small number of states that will decide the next election. The rest of the nation—where the vast majority lives—hardly matters at all.
As the chart below shows, the swing states' demographics — meaning their balance of whites and non-whites — are, put simply, hugely different than the mix in other, politically uncontested states. So the America that chooses the president is not the actual America. It is nonetheless the America that produces the political stance of, most obviously, Donald Trump.
This chart from the New York Times shows something very important but leaves out the key fact. Again and again political reporters leave this out.
The electoral college system does not magnify every political faction. It minimizes some, such as college educated (also high turnout) or African Americans. It magnifies white evangelicals because of their large presence in the few midwestern swing states, where their voting exceeds 30%:
A truism in politics is that elections are about the future. Typically the change candidate wins.
But actually with the broken system that prevails in the United States the presidential election is more about the past. The backwards looking candidate is advantaged.
As the chart below shows the states where America is changing the most rapidly are almost all irrelevant to the outcome of the presidential election.
Almost all the voters in the problem locations below are ignored by the system. Florida, it gets attention, and sometimes North Carolina. But the candidates in both parties take for granted the outcome all the rest of these states. Given the plight of the people in these states, the voters really ought to be able to have all their votes count in a national election of the president.
There are two maps shown. The first is Lincoln’s, used to inform him about the slave population. The second, is Raj Chetty’s report on where low income parents are located. The overlaps show, among other things, how long the Electoral College system has denied voice to the people – of all races! – in these states.
In another post, we discussed the problems with dividing a state’s electoral votes by congressional district (in a word: gerrymandering). Another proposed solution to the winner-take-all problem is allocating electors proportionally based on the votes of the state at large. Simply put, if a candidate won 70%-30% in a state with 10 electoral votes, 7 votes would go to the winner and 3 to the runner-up.
The upsides of this proposal are straightforward: more votes would matter, turnout would increase, and candidates would have incentives to seek votes in more places. But proportional representation is unlikely to create a national campaign, nor would it make every vote truly equal. Indeed, a proportional system may lead to an even more undemocratic result than is likely under our current system.
While there would be fewer wasted votes under a proportional system, it would not make every vote count. Absent a constitutional amendment, the votes would have to be rounded to the nearest whole elector. So there would still be wasted surplus votes and votes for the runner up that do not count in the final tally. In close elections, this could lead to the winner of the national popular vote still losing the presidency.
But splitting electoral votes proportionally would raise a whole new problem: a dramatic increase in the likelihood of third-party candidates throwing the election to the House of Representatives.
If a third-party candidate could get enough votes to win just a few electors in a close election, that candidate could prevent anyone from reaching the 270 electoral votes necessary to win. In such a case, the election would go to the House of Representatives, with each state getting a single vote regardless of population. This is a profoundly undemocratic outcome that would lead to voters losing their voices entirely.
Looking at past elections, the House would have decided the outcome in at least 2000 and 2016 if electors were awarded proportionally. But if elections actually occurred under the proportional system, the percentage of elections decided by the House would be much higher as the incentives for third-party candidates grew exponentially. In large states, a third-party candidate would be able to garner at least a couple of electoral votes by winning only a tiny fraction of the vote in that state, and in a close election, that could keep any party from reaching 270.
Once the vote goes to the House, horse-trading, corruption, and backroom deals could lead to a candidate being inaugurated despite having little popular support. So proportional representation is not cure for the evils in our system and would create a host of new and bigger problems.
There is also a feasibility problem under any proposal that involves splitting votes. Unless all or almost all states signed on, the campaigns would still not be truly national—and many states will be unwilling to split their votes for fear of losing political influence.
Splitting up a state’s electoral votes makes sense for a few small states—like Maine and Nebraska—that are perpetually ignored. But most states adopted a winner-take-all system in order to increase their political heft. They wanted candidates to campaign in their states in hopes of winning a large number of electoral votes at once. Therefore, states will be unlikely to unilaterally split their votes for fear of losing that clout.
Safe states would hesitate to give up any of their votes to the other party, and swing states would hesitate to lose their special status. And as long as just a few big swing states kept the winner-take-all system, candidates would have a strong incentive to focus their campaigns on those states alone rather than battling it out for the one or two swing electoral votes in most other states.
The best way to make every vote count—and to make presidential candidates campaign for every vote—is to enact the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Unlike splitting electoral votes, no state is put in the position of unilaterally giving up any influence because the Compact does not go into effect until enough states join to guarantee the winner of the national popular vote will become the president. And the Compact is over 70% of the way there—only a few more states need to sign on to make it a reality. When that happens, all votes will count equally—no matter where you live.
The key swing states Florida and Pennsylvania have the first and second highest percentage of residents over the age of 65. Voters in these older states decide the election and the young people everywhere else are taken for granted.
This article starts with the assumption that the American electorate is somehow biased against women candidates. In fact it is the electoral college system that is biased. If the president were elected by the national vote then women candidates would usually be competitive and of course one already would have won.
The American people are not biased against women. The system is. The shame is that feminists regardless of gender are not more vigorously rallying against the electoral college system.
The reason the system is biased against women is that by chance in the swing states a large fraction of women are evangelicals. They do not support much of the agenda that commands the adherence of a large majority of women nationally. So this minority fraction of women frustrates what most women want. This is a failure of democracy.
Now that the Supreme Court has opted out of its historic role of promoting democracy, it is even more important for women at large to change the electoral system. Feminists can’t count on the Supreme Court, and especially not on the five male conservative members, to help them out.
Conventional wisdom says that a national popular vote will harm the interests of small, rural states. It is true that because a state’s electoral votes equal its representation in the House plus two votes for each Senator, small states do have a slightly higher share of Electoral College votes than they would have if the votes were distributed in accordance to population alone.
But how much does that really matter? The fact that Idaho has four electoral votes instead of two does not mean that candidates try to win any votes in Idaho. No candidate visited the state in 2016, nor did candidates flood the airwaves with ads, nor did they discuss policy issues of particular concern to Idaho, nor did they set up extensive get-out-the-vote operations. As a result, only 59.2% of eligible voters in Idaho voted for president in 2016. Rhode Island, which also has four electoral votes, was similarly ignored completely by candidates and, not surprisingly, had correspondingly low turnout of 59.1%.
On the other hand, New Hampshire, which has the same number of electoral votes as Idaho and Rhode Island, got 21 visits from candidates in 2016, plus countless ads and a serious get-out-the vote effort. Not surprisingly, turnout for the presidential election in New Hampshire was 71.4%—the second highest in the nation.
The differing treatment of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Idaho is explained by the fact that New Hampshire is a swing state while Rhode Island and Idaho are not.
New Hampshire gets attention in spite of the fact that it is small, not because it is small.
In a piece in Bloomberg, Justin Fox explains that in the 1960s and 1970s, people criticized the Electoral College because it unfairly gave an advantage to big states and big cities, at the expense of small states. That’s because back then, the five biggest states—New York, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio—were all swing states. As Fox notes, any advantages conferred by the system to big states, to Republicans, or to Democrats, are transient:
It’s easy enough to look back at a presidential election and determine how the Electoral College hurt or helped your side. It’s a little harder, but far from impossible, to come up with reasonable suppositions about which states will play a more or less decisive role in an impending election. Determining who the Electoral College helps or hurts over the long run, though, may be too tough a puzzle for anyone to solve.
The best way to think of the Electoral College may be as a wrench that occasionally gets thrown into the works of American presidential elections, delivering a result that is at odds with the popular vote. I would beware of becoming too confident that said wrench is on your side.
In other words, the only constant of the Electoral College is that it benefits swing states. Most small states, like most big states, get ignored.
And if you don’t live in a swing state, the consequences go far beyond how many ads you are likely to see in an election year. Your industries get ignored, your funding gets cut, and you are less likely to get disaster relief funding than people who live in the handful of states that decide elections.
The majority of women believe that women should have the right to exercise some choice about whether to have children. But evangelicals vehemently disagree. President Trump sides publicly with evangelicals.
It is almost impossible to believe that he has always sincerely held this position.
But the electoral college system practically compels him to be taking this stance while running for president. Why? Because a huge proportion of voters in swing states are evangelicals.
The views of the majority of women would militate for a different policy in the Trump Presidency. If they mattered. Which they don’t. Because of the electoral college system.
This map shows one of the many religious denominations that are regionally concentrated outside swing states.
The percentage of Mormons by county:
A very quick scan at this map reveals that with the arguable exception of Nevada virtually all Mormons live in states that are taken for granted in the general presidential election. As a result, members of this denomination are effectively irrelevant in the general presidential election.
Generally speaking, Mormons vote by a large majority for the same political party and share a common agenda. If the national popular vote picked the president this religious block would get attention from all major party candidates. But instead the winner-take-all electoral college system politically neutralizes members of the Church.
In an opinion piece published in The Hill, Lara Brown urges Democrats to “stop worrying about the electoral college,” because over time, demographics are likely to shift and the current system may favor Democrats. Likewise, Republican pollster Jim Hobart notes that the electoral college is “cyclical,” and that in a few years, Republicans may wish that we chose our president by national popular vote.
They are both right that under the current system, swing states become safe states, and safe states for one party can become safe states for the other, with relative frequency. Therefore, Republicans are not likely to retain a long-term structural advantage from keeping the current system, nor are Democrats always going to be better off under a national popular vote.
But under the current system, even if the identity of the swing states that decide elections changes to the advantage of one party or the other, certain things will remain the same:
Emergency natural disaster relief funds will come more quickly to swing states than non-swing states.
Industries concentrated in swing states will be lavished with subsidies and special regulatory treatment while industries in safe states languish and are ignored.
Projects in swing states will get federal funding while similar projects in safe states are ignored.
The policies favored by most Americans will be sidelined in favor of policies designed to get out the vote in swing states.
Most Americans will continue to live in states totally ignored by presidential candidates, and their votes won’t count.
That is why so many people—of all political persuasions—have been working tirelessly to enact the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact since 2006, through Republican and Democratic electoral victories alike. No one has the right to always have their candidate of choice elected president. But if the president has to win the national popular vote, every person’s vote will count equally.
Some argue that because small states get more electors relative to their population than large states, the Electoral College is good for small states and protects their interests. However, that minor advantage is far outweighed by the incentives to ignore people who live in small states entirely when almost every state awards all of its electors to the winner of the statewide popular vote. From Ryan Cooper at The Week:
The 2016 candidates spent almost all their time in a handful of states, most of them medium or large. Two-thirds of campaign events happened in just six states — Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan. If we include Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Arizona, then those 12 states account for 96 percent of campaign events.
The nine smallest states (including D.C.), meanwhile, got precisely zero attention. Only the tenth-largest, New Hampshire, got any events at all. In total, 25 states (mostly small and medium-sized) got no events whatsoever. And while it's true the states that got huge attention are mostly on the big side, the very largest states were almost totally ignored as well — California and Texas got one event apiece, and New York none.
The reason for this is obvious. Almost every state gives all of its electoral votes to whoever wins the state — allowing candidates to take the votes of strongly partisan states for granted. Indeed, it's actively foolish to campaign where you are guaranteed to win or lose — only the swing states matter. It would be a waste of resources for a Democrat to campaign in California or Kentucky, or for a Republican to campaign in New York or D.C.
A strong majority of Americans supports the government leading in battle against climate change. But the electoral college system privileges states that account for the major part of greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania, three swing states that were integral to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, were among the top 12 states in aggregate emissions. These states would have to change their energy use the most in order to defeat climate change. Change is hard.
Therefore in 2016 and again in his 2020 campaign it serves Donald Trump‘s interests to support climate change denial and to be in favor of continuing business as usual, which is obviously threatening global climate disaster. If it were not for the electoral college system the United States would be much more likely to have a climate change policy that reflects the wishes of most Americans and all scientists who pay any attention to this subject.
All the other states on the list of 12 are taken for granted by both parties. The key fact is the presence of the three swing states in the dirty dozen.