Today's Albany Times Union has an op-ed urging readers to encourage New York state senators to support a bill that would bind the Empire State to an interstate pact that to award presidential elections to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. So far, five states are parties to the pact, which asserts a raw democratic principle against the country's constitutional tradition. Advocates believe that the President of the United States should be elected by a majority of the American people -- or at least a majority of those who vote. Rather than amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College, which guarantees a minimum of electoral votes to the smallest states and thus gives them disproportionate influence in elections by pure democratic standards, the National Popular Vote pact, upon taking effect, would bind state signatories to allocate all of their electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most popular votes nationwide, regardless of whether that candidate got the most popular votes in any particular state. The commanding principle behind the plan is that the people, not the states, elect the President. The corollary is that the people should choose as a single assembly or electorate, not in separate assemblies whose artificial rough equality actually makes some votes count for more than others.
John R. Koza's reasoning in favor of adopting the pact may strike local readers as paradoxical. He opens his article by complaining that presidential candidates don't pay enough attention to, or spend enough campaign money in New York. He appeals implicitly to state pride and seeks to make us angry that we are ignored. He blames this neglect, not on the fact that New York seems safely "blue," but on the state's winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes. That distribution isn't mandated by the U.S. Constitution, Koza rightly notes, but is entirely up to each state.
Assuming first that it's a problem or an injustice that New Yorkers aren't visited often enough by presidential candidates, there are two possible solutions to the problem. One alternative is to change the state rule so that each electoral district can cast its vote for the popular vote winner within its own borders. Since there are "red" as well as "blue" sections of New York, that gives candidates of both major parties, not to mention independents with concentrations of local support, incentive to campaign more aggressively (and responsively, one hopes) in the state. Because Koza rejects any scheme that divides the electorate and disrupts the "one man, one vote" balance that pure democracy demands, he prefers the National Popular Vote scheme. This creates an incentive for candidates because each individual vote they can get in any state will count toward the raw national total that would alone determine the winner.
Koza's proposal will require New Yorkers to rethink their own role in the process. The obvious argument against the National Popular Vote in any state debating it will be the prospect that the people of that state may prefer one candidate, but will be bound to surrender their electoral votes to another if that person gets a mere plurality of the national vote -- Koza doesn't say that the NPV winner must have a majority of the popular vote. It will be easy to tell New Yorkers that they'd be disfranchised by such a process. The challenge for Koza and other advocates of the NPV is to convince them otherwise, that their votes will count for no less and no more than anyone else's in America. They'll need to persuade New Yorkers that in presidential elections they must vote as individuals and Americans, not as New Yorkers.
A different argument against the NPV has nothing to do with democracy, except to question democracy's claim on the Presidency. The entire movement for a national popular vote is based on the premise that the President of the United States is the representative of the entire American people, and should be selected by the people as a whole the same way that local populations pick their representatives in Congress. Over the course of American history, Presidents have been happy to make that claim, especially when they seek to expand their power at the expense of Congress and the Supreme Court or want to ignore the will of those branches of government. Whether the Founders meant the President to see himself that way is debatable. Wouldn't they have mandated a popular vote in the first place had they seen the chief executive as a tribune of undivided democracy? Instead, they expected people to vote for electors, not presidents, and not necessarily with foreknowledge of whom the electors would make president. This is old news, of course, and I bring it up again only to remind readers that they should not take for granted that the President is supposed to be the unique representative of all the people. Before we alter our election process based on such an assumption, let's decide what we want the President to be, where the office stands between the people and the rest of the government, how much prestige and power an entirely democratic election should grant a President. We don't have to be bound by what the Founders thought on the subject, but if we intend to do things differently we should be clear on why we're doing it.