09 June 2010

Will the National Popular Vote Make Us All Matter?

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.


Anonymous said...

"...They'll need to persuade New Yorkers that in presidential elections they must vote as individuals and Americans, not as New Yorkers."

In that case, may as well get rid of the states entirely and just live as one nation.

hobbyfan said...

I don't see this "national popular vote" working out. Why mess with tradition, flawed though it is?

Susan said...

The congressional district method of awarding electoral votes (currently used in Maine and Nebraska) would not help make every vote matter. In NC, for example, there are only 4 of the 13 congressional districts that would be close enough to get any attention from presidential candidates. A smaller fraction of the country's population lives in competitive congressional districts (about 12%) than in the current battleground states (about 30%) that now get overwhelming attention , while two-thirds of the states are ignored Also, a second-place candidate could still win the White House without winning the national popular vote.

Susan said...

Under the current system of electing the President, no state requires that a presidential candidate receive anything more than the most popular votes in order to receive all of the state's electoral votes.

Not a single legislative bill has been introduced in any state legislature in recent decades (among the more than 100,000 bills that are introduced in every two-year period by the nation's 7,300 state legislators) proposing to change the existing universal practice of the states to award electoral votes to the candidate who receives a plurality (as opposed to absolute majority) of the votes (statewide or district-wide). There is no evidence of any public sentiment in favor of imposing such a requirement.

Susan said...

The Founding Fathers only said in the U.S. Constitution about presidential elections (only after debating among 60 ballots for choosing a method): "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all rule) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation's first presidential election.

In 1789, in the nation's first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, Only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote.

In 1789 only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all rule to award electoral votes.

There is no valid argument that the winner-take-all rule is entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. The current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all rule (i.e., awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state) is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the debates of the Constitutional Convention, or the Federalist Papers. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all rule.

As a result of changes in state laws enacted since 1789, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the state-by-state winner-take-all rule is used by 48 of the 50 states.

Samuel Wilson said...

Susan: I appreciate your extensive response. I brought up the lack of a majority requirement in the NPV scheme because its advocates might make a more compelling case for its adoption if they asked states to defer to the choice of an actual majority rather than a plurality of voters. My own preference so long as we retain the Electoral College is that each district be awarded to its popular-vote winner instead of being bundled with other districts in a state. It's arguably a flaw in the Constitution that it made the district electors subject to the will of state governments. Ironically, NPV would reproduce that "flaw" on a national scale, but it's only a flaw if you assume some inviolable sovereignty of either the state or the electoral district. Finally, I think it's silly to promote NPV on the premise that it might get a candidate to come to your town. It seems like an appeal to envy of the attention battleground states receive. Whether those states really enjoy that attention is open to debate.

Anonymous said...

The one thing all of you people who talk about the "founding fathers" (as if they were gods) and the way things were done in 1789 is that THIS IS NOT 1789 AND THE FOUNDING FATHERS ARE LONG DEAD! We are under no onus to follow through on their wishes, even if we knew what their wishes would be if they could foresee how things would be.

There were only 13 states in the beginning. There are now 50. The early population could be counted in the tens of thousands, now it is counted in the hundreds of millions. Our founding fathers were, in all probability, just as short-sited and of narrow vision as our current crop of "leaders" are.

Anonymous said...

Their main concern is how to best ensure THEIR party gets the power and keeps it, so they can keep their "jobs" as politicians.

Common Cause Massachusetts said...

Less an appeal to envy than an appeal to keep the focus of our national presidential election national. In 2008, under the current system, 4 crucial Electoral College swing states (Ohio, Florida Pennsylvania, and Virginia) got 57% of the campaign visits and 54% of the ad spending; more than 98% of all campaign events took place in a mere 15 states.
The electoral college system has turned the nation into a largely stagnant set of red and blue states (Massachusetts will always go Democrat, Texas will always go Republican) which are totally ignored, minus fund raising, in favor of those swing states. It is not envy to want that campaign focus to reach outside of 15 out of the 50 states, and there are long-term implications too. If candidates have to tailor their campaigns to those few swing states, the specialized issues of those states will become central parts of their platform and then administration. This takes a few regional concerns and makes them national policy, at the expense of 35 out of 50 states.

Samuel Wilson said...

Common Cause: What do you consider the "specialized issues" of the four states in question? Only the Floridian concern with Cuba comes immediately to mind. You describe a situation where western states may have cause to cry neglect, but otherwise these four states hardly seem alien to the rest of the country. In any event, criticisms of the present system would sound less envious if people didn't always mention the money. And for my part I do support the intermediate reform of giving each electoral district to its popular-vote winner.

Common Cause Massachusetts said...

The problem isn't the money itself, its that the money represents the focus of the candidate. If he or she is going to be elected on the basis of the 15 states where all the money goes, there is little incentive to make issues from any other state important. And those issues would include the tech industry in Massachusetts or California, Cuba as you said, and a host of smaller issues. NY donated almost 90 million dollars to the two main candidates in the last election-and got no campaign visits compared to the over 30 times those candidates went to Florida. Voters deserve to be more than a piggybank, they should have their vote count.

And the electoral district idea does make sense in theory, but in reality gerrymandering has made most districts even more dominated by one party or the other than states, so the swing state focus would turn into an even more specialized swing county focus, leaving the same issues.

Anonymous said...

Why should a small issue for one state become the focus of a national election? Considering the amount of campaign ads strewn across the various broadcast mediums, you can't really say that the politicians "ignore" certain states. Unless what you are really insinuating is that politicians should have to stump through all 50 states and shake hands with every single person. Of course none of this would be an issue if we just realized that the idea of "states" is outmoded and no longer useful.

What we should be doing is looking at how to eliminate that entire layer of government. If we are (as the pledge states) "...one nation, indivisible...", then having 50 separate states really serves no useful purpose at all, except to add another layer of government and another layer of taxes to support that layer of government.

Samuel Wilson said...

CCM: If the specific interests of all the states matter in a presidential election, might we not just as well stick with the Electoral College? And do you mean to say that a vote (or a donation) only counts if a candidate spends money in my state? I know people worry about a quid-pro-quo element to campaign donations, but I didn't realize it was supposed to take effect before the election!

In all seriousness, remedies are being proposed to the gerrymandering of districts that might eliminate your objection to sticking with electoral districts. It may look like I'm nitpicking your comments, but the discussion forces on all of us the question of who we are when we vote: individuals , Americans or something in between.

Common Cause Massachusetts said...

Clearly money donated should be used outside the state, I did not mean to imply that. When you support a candidate, you support their entire national platform and campaign. The problem I was trying to articulate is that it is an unbalanced system if two thirds of the population supports candidates with money and the other third (swing states) support them with votes.That means there is an unequal distribution of power in terms of which voters matter, which is a less than ideal reality compared to notions of all votes counting equally.

As far as specific state's issues, I think some should matter in a Presidential election, but that should be determined by actual necessity and importance of each individual issue- not by whether they as issues in a swing state or not. That is why the Electoral College does a much worse job maintaining equal rights for all states and voters than NPV would, since the need for EC votes skews importance of swing state concerns.

Common Cause Massachusetts said...

Great job by the Massachusetts Senate to end the delay tactics by the few Senators opposed and bring this to a a vote. This is a huge step for voters in Massachusetts, both Republican and Democrat.