Voter Participation

Let the People Decide if They Want the National Popular Vote

So far, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has only been passed by Democratic legislatures. But it’s also possible for the people to weigh in directly via the ballot box on whether they want every vote across the country to count equally. From Time:

Reed Hundt, head of the bipartisan Making Every Vote Count advocacy group, thinks the states that will put [the Compact] over the top might instead come from a successful ballot measure driven by grassroots support. Twenty-six states allow voters to approve either an initiative or a referendum on an issue, including potential interstate-compact targets like Ohio, Missouri and Arizona.

“The important thing is public opinion,” the former FCC chairman said. “The American people by large numbers need to say, ‘What’s up with this 18th century artifact? We don’t need to let it pick the president for us. We should pick ourselves.’”

Hundt remains optimistic that it will succeed eventually, in part because he thinks Electoral College results will increasingly cut against the popular will. A statistical analysis in 2017 done for Making Every Vote Count predicted splits between the Electoral College and the popular vote could happen in nearly one out of three elections in the next century, and neither party is likely to have a long-term advantage.

Based on how members of both parties have reacted in the past, a Republican loss under those circumstances would likely move public opinion on the right pretty quickly. And that, Hundt believes, could be what finally makes the difference.

The National Popular Vote is Bigger than Any One Candidate

Jamelle Bouie for the New York Times admirably explains that the national popular vote is about more than partisan fighting or the outcome of any one election and succinctly lays out the arguments in favor of reforming our current system, including:

  • The Electoral College undermines the principle of one person, one vote.

  • The Electoral College means that candidates can (and do) ignore rural voters in big and mid-size states like California, New York, Illinois, Alabama, and South Carolina because those states are taken for granted by one party or the other.

  • As a matter of math, California and New York could not dominate elections under the national popular vote.

    • In 2016, only about a quarter of all votes cast came from New York, California, Texas, and Florida in total.

    • Even if everyone in those states somehow voted unanimously, candidates would need to campaign elsewhere to win.

  • On the other hand, under the Electoral College, the 11 biggest states could decide election by bare majority in each state.

  • Under the national popular vote, people with similar interests across state lines can band together to make their voices heard.

  • Framers feared "pure democracy," but the real concern was there was greater suffrage in the north than the south because of slavery.

  • The Electoral College makes it possible for the House to decide the president, which would be chaotic and destabilizing. 

North Dakota Mistreated

I was kindly invited to speak on the Plain Talk podcast with Rob Port in North Dakota. Here’s what I tried to communicate:

  1. The 216,000 North Dakotans who voted for Donald Trump got three electors in the Electoral College, but only 174,000 Trump voters in Wyoming got the same number, and only 163,000 in Alaska got the same number. What's fair about not giving every vote in every state equal weight? The only way to do that is to count every vote in every state equally in a national contest for the presidency.

  2. There are according to various sources at least 583,000 eligible voters in North Dakota. Of course it is a Republican leaning state, but only 216,000, or 37%, voted for Donald Trump. Why? Because his campaign took the state's outcome for granted, and not every vote cast there mattered. This is how the electoral college system does not bring North Dakotans into full participation in the single national election. The result is that your citizens get less attention paid not only in the general election but generally in politics than they deserve. This is why, for instance, the tariff war doesn't help you, why the focus on manufacturing in Ohio does nothing for you, and so on.

  3. There are 60 million Americans in rural areas. By and large they are ignored relative to the residents of a handful of swing states, even though their concerns and issues are quite distinct. The reason is that almost all live in states that are taken for granted by the presidential nominees.

  4. According to Wikipedia, presidential visits to North Dakota are few and far between—only seven visits since Nixon—if you want to take that as evidence of being taken for granted.  By contrast, Barack Obama and Donald Trump alone have visited New Hampshire (a state with only one more electoral vote than North Dakota) seven times as presidents.

Dispatch from the Land of the Ignored

As everyone probably knows, in seeking the 270 electoral votes, both parties' candidates in the general election take for granted more than 40 states, where more than 80% of Americans live.

Nevertheless, some people assert that this skewed game makes candidates pay attention to small states and the Midwest. That was demolished succinctly last night by a respected Republican strategist:

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In just the last day numerous presidential candidates have inveighed against the current system. They all grasp that no one in the country really wants the presidential election in 2020 to be determined by the two parties spending two or $3 billion on trying to persuade voters in just five or six states. 

Well, there is an exception. One presidential candidate tweeted that if every vote in the country mattered, and were counted equally to pick the president, then the candidates would ignore all small states and all states in the Midwest.

The idea that with a national popular vote system the parties would pay no attention to voters in the Midwest or Great Plains is about as logical as saying that Amazon doesn’t deliver products outside big cities or cell phones don’t connect to people everywhere in the country. Everyone in business knows how to reach everyone in the country, and in the business of politics with the national popular vote the candidates would do what businesses do: try to get every single customer. 

More than visiting, advertising, opening get-out-the-vote offices, going on radio, supporting small town newspapers, polling and calling people in small population states, the candidates would actually have to listen to people in every state. When every vote counts, every person gets attention.

Politicians who like the status quo might well dislike national campaigns by the presidential candidates. Republicans would have the incentive to rebuild their party in Vermont; Democrats would seek voters in the Dakotas. Two party contests would occur in most states, and some incumbents would lose their seats. Voters would have choices to make. Elections would not be foregone conclusions and mere coronations. The political parties would have to be big tents, where compromise was required to bond factions together. Small market newspapers and broadcast stations would be invigorated by advertising and news about candidate visits. Things would change. Democracy does that.

For those who think the country’s politics are heading in the wrong direction—and rural areas have high percentages of people who feel this way—the best possible antidote for the troubles of today is the election of the president by the people.

When I was the chairman of the FCC one of the reasons we wanted the Internet to touch everyone was precisely because we thought that if the political parties could reach everyone cheaply and efficiently through digital technology they would do so. The only reason that doesn’t happen now is the electoral college system makes 40 states and 80% of the people functionally irrelevant (taken for granted as) to the outcome of the presidential election.  

Beto O'Rourke Criticizes Electoral College

Beto O’Rourke has joined other 2020 candidates Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Kirsten Gillibrand in noting the unfairness of the Electoral College as the system currently operates.

When asked about it on the campaign trail, O’Rourke said that the Electoral College "puts some states out of play all together. They don't feel like their votes really count." O’Rourke added that “if we really want every person to vote,” the system has to “make sure their votes count and go to the candidate of their choosing.”

What most people want

This chart shows that no presidential candidate could win the national popular vote by opposing immigration.

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If the national popular vote mattered to choosing the president, there’s no doubt that the boiling divisive controversy over immigration would simmer down to the point of debating the necessary compromises over (a) who can stay, (b) who can come in, and (c) how to expel or keep out those who cannot stay or come in.

Right, Professor, Right

In his book “No Property in Man,” historian Sean Wilentz writes of the Constitution’s Framers, “On July 20, the delegates gave their initial approval to what might have been the most decisive triumph on behalf of slavery of the entire convention….the creation of the Electoral College.” Page 70.

The Electoral College was conceived in the sin of slavery. No one now argues that slavery was anything other than a horrible proof of the depravity of human beings. Holding on to it was the single strongest motive of the southerners at the convention.

As Wilentz writes, “the convention divided between those more and those less impressed by the competence of popular rule,” but beyond doubt “southerners in both groups had an additional reason to oppose popular election of the president.”

What was that? And does it still lurk in the thinking of those who oppose direct election by national popular vote of the president? See, e.g., former Maine Governor Paul LePage, who oppose direct election because it would empower non-white voters.

Wilentz explains that because slaves would not be able to vote, “southerners were unlikely ever to win the presidency under a democratic system.”

Even today, more than 200 years later, African American voters in the south typically play little to no role in the general election of the president – because the electoral system systematically discards the votes for runners-up, which usually is where the non-white vote in the polarized south goes:

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To win the southern states’ agreement to vote for the constitution, Madison apportioned the electors according to total of the seats in the House, which gave weight to slaves on a three-fifths basis, and seats in the Senate, which gave weight to relatively underpopulated states (which came to include more slave states, like the nearly empty Florida and Arkansas). The unsurprising result, Wilentz explains, was that “four of the first six presidents of the United States were Virginia slaveholders.” He might have gone on to say that no president was anti-slavery until Abraham Lincoln in 1860. And Lincoln won only because the Democratic Party split between northern and southern factions.

The history of America is the history of race and the principal arguments for the Electoral College system today are, whether or not well-intentioned, all too clearly resonant of the views of the southern delegates in the 18th century and Governor LePage this week.

FiveThirtyEight Takes a Look at the Popular Vote Movement

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is gaining momentum and getting attention. Political forecasting website  FiveThirtyEight notes that with the addition of Colorado, the first state to join the compact that is not solidly blue, the Compact has reached a huge milestone and is two-thirds of the way to the 270 votes needed to guarantee the president would have to win the popular vote.


The FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast also covered the national popular vote movement, and discussed the ways that the Electoral College system distorts the way candidates campaign. 

In reality, the problem goes much further than campaign stops or advertising money.  The Electoral College system also warps the way that presidents seeking re-election govern—and the consequences are very real.

How to Win the Presidency by Losing

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s announcement that he is considering running for president as an independent did not go well.  A CNN poll showed that only 13% of Americans have a favorable opinion of him. 

However, thanks to the intricacies of the Electoral College, Schultz could end up becoming the president even if only a small percentage of the people vote for him. As Hugh Hewitt explains in the Washington Post, the 12th Amendment states that the House of Representatives will choose the president if no candidate gets 270 or more electoral votes.  If Schultz wins even one state, he could end up as a compromise candidate despite getting the fewest actual votes.

This scenario may be unlikely, but it demonstrates the very real problem of third-party candidates acting as spoilers who can thwart the will of the majority in our presidential elections. 

Colorado Legislature Passes National Popular Vote Bill

Both chambers of the Colorado legislature have passed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. If Governor Jared Polis signs the bill, as he has pledged to do, Colorado will join eleven other states and the District of Columbia in agreeing to pledge their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote once states with a total of 270 electoral votes join the Compact. After Colorado’s nine votes are added to the total, the Compact will have 181 electoral votes.

If the Compact becomes effective, it will “eliminat[e] any chance that a candidate can win the presidency without winning the popular vote nationally.”

The New Mexico House has passed a similar bill. It is awaiting a vote by the state’s Senate.

Republicans Should Dislike Winner-Take-All

Democrats use a proportional system to nominate their candidate for president.

But “Republicans tend to use winner-take-all systems that reward candidates who win by even the slimmest margins.” Kamarck at 88-92. This “means that Democratic contests that make it past the early states can go on much longer than Republican contests.”

Proportional systems were favored by “early twentieth-century progressive reformers who saw proportional representation as a way to break the power of big-city political machines.” Proportionality was revived by Democrats in their presidential nominating process in the wake of the divisive 1968 nominating experience.

The result is that Democrats typically attract more attention, more voters register Democratic, Democrats build a big tent and a big base, and Republicans hope that greater control by an elite over the process gives them a candidate who aligns with the wishes of the elite.

In 2015-16 the winner-take-all system greatly helped Donald Trump’s take-over of the Republican party. If the Republicans had used proportionality to choose delegates, Trump would have had a much more difficult time getting so many delegates so early. He might well have won the nomination anyhow, but the theory of an elite controlling the process is now debunked.

By contrast, while using the equitable proportional system almost exclusively since the 1990s, the Democrats have nominated candidates who won the national popular plurality in every general election from 1992 to 2016, with the sole exception of 2004. That is six wins out of seven.

One person, one vote builds a bigger, better, reliable base for a national party.

The View from Utah

This piece in the Salt Lake Tribune explains how the Electoral College, as it currently operates, harms Utah voters:

Any power smaller states gained under the original system has been lost to unpredictable battleground states, of any size. In 2016, why did Iowa (after primary season), with 3 million people, a strong rural component and six electoral votes (all like Utah), get 21 campaign events and Utah only one? Because Iowa’s a battleground state.

In Utah, we had 10 presidential contenders. The Republican won the statewide popular vote with only 46 percent of the total. The other nine candidates combined won 54 percent. The result? The six electors chosen by winner-take-all to ride our Electoral Bus to its destination represented fewer than half of our voters. That’s how Utah contributed to the infamous popular vote/electoral vote split, and with margins in presidential contests growing tighter every cycle, keeping these state winner-take-all laws makes the possibility of more splits loom over every future election.

 However, if the winner of the national popular vote became the president:

[B]ig states, small states, big cities, small cities, rural communities nationwide — where you vote won’t matter, that you vote will. Every vote in states like Utah will be as powerful as every vote in states like Florida, and candidates must go everywhere to get them. On that election night, for the first time in American history, finally, electors representing the nation’s entire vote will ride Electoral Buses to their destination: the selection of the president.

Competing Draws a Crowd

Elaine Kamarck notes that the Bush vs McCain campaign in 2000 attracted “enormous amounts of attention and new voters.” Page 77.

They competed in many states. The media followed them. In state after state they battled, paying attention to local issues, building Republican party registration numbers. Exactly what would happen in the general election from June to November if the parties’ candidates had to win the national vote in order to get the electors necessary to become president.

The Republicans who want to ground their party on the center-right, where the majority of Americans are found, should vigorously fight for a national popular vote as the way to choose the president. They would be basing the Republican “base” on a true majority of voters.

If Candidates Had to Win the National Tally They’d Compete Everywhere

A shibboleth of the enemies of direct democracy for choosing the president is this:

If every vote mattered equally no candidates would care about the votes in less dense or rural states.

On its face this claim seems self-contradicting. If every vote counted equally, then obviously every candidate would try to get every vote everywhere. The question would not be whether they wanted every vote, but rather how would they go after the votes in less dense areas. 

We already know the answer by looking at how major brands and retailers reach every possible customer. 

First, retailers invest in national branding. Currently in the general election presidential candidates spend almost nothing advertising on national television shows. If every vote mattered equally this would change. You’d see the president advertising on the Super Bowl, or for that matter, stalking the sidelines for “product placement.”

Second, in major urban areas the cost of reaching customers through broadcast or cable channels is much higher than in less dense areas. Therefore campaigns would proportionally spend less on television spots in dense areas, and much more on television in less dense areas. If you own a television station in the Dakotas, you should want the national popular vote to pick the president. Similarly there’d be political advertising on local radio in rural areas, whereas today there is none from the presidential candidates.

Third, the rise of social advertising is inexorable, because social advertisers can pick the target audience with more precision than can one-to-many advertising. Especially in dense areas, social would be preferred over old school techniques. But because distance is irrelevant for social advertising, the big social firms would be a platform for reaching every voter everywhere.  

Fourth, just as Wal-Mart ignores no one, so candidates would ignore no region in their search for votes. Very likely, in right-leaning states the effort to get out the vote for the Republican nominee would go up, because the Republicans currently gain nothing by seeking higher turn-out in the more rural states where they are the preferred party.

 Fifth, there is some evidence already that confirms these hypotheses. This is from the estimable web site

The fact that serious candidates solicit every voter that matters was also demonstrated in 2008 by Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district (the Omaha area). Even though each congressional district in the country contains only 1/4% of the country’s population, the Obama campaign operated three separate campaign offices staffed by 16 people there. … Mitt Romney opened a campaign office in Omaha in July 2012 in order to compete in Nebraska’s 2nd district and … the Obama campaign was also active in the Omaha area.

In many cases, small states offer presidential candidates the attraction of considerably lower per-impression media costs …

Can't Save What Never Had

Rick Hasen rightly praises the many good features of H.R.1, a bill that would reform many aspects of our elections, but the title of the article wrongly claims it may save democracy.

You cannot save what you do not have. We do not have a democratic method of choosing the president.

If you want democracy, the single most important reform of elections in the United States unquestionably would be a guarantee that the national vote winner always became president.

This reform would: 

  • cause both parties to compete everywhere for votes, using all the Internet-enabled tools to find and seek to persuade every eligible voter in every part of the country.

  • drive up total participation by 20 to 80 million votes, roughly ten times the amount of increased participation that all the measures in H.R.1 would be able to accomplish. Yes, that's right: ten times more impact!

  • change the two major parties' policies, practices, and pitches so that each would be far more likely to seek voters than to reject voting. The reason is that wooing and winning a plurality among the extra tens of millions of voters is more likely to succeed than discouraging a few hundred thousand voters in swing states.

  • discourage voter suppression by bringing every effort of that kind into proximity of every voter. Why? Because if both campaigns valued, looked for, needed, and tried to get every vote, then any effort to discourage voting necessarily would occur in every precinct. That would cause the vote-suppressing party to be known everywhere as the enemy of democracy—hardly the way to win elections. By contrast, with the current system, where the presidency is chosen by votes that are elsewhere, far away, in a distant state, from the perspective of the vast majority of voters, then voter suppression too is someone else's problem.