The Path to a National Popular Vote

Election '08

Right now, many are frustrated about Iowa and New Hampshire voters having such oversized influence in America's presidential elections. In a few months, as the general election campaign unfolds, we will be similarly frustrated about Ohio and Florida. Who arbitrarily gave this handful of states the disproportionate power to determine our national political path?

When it comes to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, the answer is the parties. They decide which states select nominees first. In the general election, the culprit is the Electoral College. Most states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. By no matter what margin presidential candidates win your state, they get all your state's electoral votes. That means if you don't live in a "battleground" like Florida or Ohio whose statewide vote is perpetually up for grabs, you are ignored.

The nominating system is easily modified. Parties can add early primary and caucus states if they choose. Changing the general election, on the other hand, looks much harder. The Electoral College and its negative consequences seem locked into the Constitution.

But the operative word is "seem."

The group National Popular Vote has developed an ingenious path around this constitutional obstruction: States can pass legislation mandating that all of their presidential electoral votes go to the winner of the national popular vote -- regardless of the election outcome in their own state.

If, say, Democrat-dominated Vermont signed on to the plan and a Republican won the national popular vote, Vermont would award its electoral votes to the Republican candidate, regardless of an overwhelming Democratic vote inside Vermont. If Republican-dominated Utah signed on to the plan and a Democrat won the popular vote, same thing -- Utah's electors would go to the Democrat.

The key element is the clause ensuring the plan does not take effect until states representing a majority of all electoral votes sign on. That way, the system only launches when it has enough electoral votes behind it to guarantee the winner of the national popular vote is the winner of the presidential election. No one state acts alone, and therefore neither political party gets an undue advantage.

This plan would immediately change presidential politics for the better.

As just one example, take the closely divided city of Indianapolis. It is currently ignored by presidential candidates because both parties know there is almost no chance Indiana will vote anything other than Republican in a presidential contest. Under the national popular vote plan, however, Indianapolis would suddenly be just as worthy of candidate attention as a similarly sized, closely divided city like Columbus, Ohio. That's because geography would cease to determine the importance of a vote. In the national popular vote system, a vote is a vote, regardless of where a candidate gets it.

The public is clamoring for this kind of fix. A 2007 Harvard University study found almost three-quarters of Americans favor a national popular vote over the current system.

The problem is Republican operatives who are trying to steer this public opinion into support for a partisan scheme to rig elections for good. Under the banner of democracy and fairness, these apparatchiks began crafting plans to push a ballot initiative in California unilaterally awarding the state's electoral votes by congressional district, rather than by winner-take-all. In other words, California's 53 congressional districts would each be like a separate state with one electoral vote going to whichever candidate won the presidential contest in that district. Experts agree the result would likely be Republicans gaining 22 electoral votes without doing a thing.
Not surprisingly, these Republicans are not pushing the same plan for red states like Texas, North Carolina and Georgia, where Democrats could make similar gains on a district-by-district basis. But that hypocrisy is secondary, because to bill the scheme as a pro-democracy reform is to lie through one's teeth. Consider that if the 2000 election had been decided on a district-by-district basis, George W. Bush's margin of Electoral College victory would have actually grown, despite the fact that he lost the popular vote.

Thankfully, the California initiative was torpedoed by GOP infighting, but you can bet it will be back soon. That is, unless states step up now. By passing national popular vote bills in the upcoming 2008 legislative sessions, state lawmakers can bring America closer to getting the democracy our civics books pretend we already have.

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