A hot topic the last few months here at the League has been the issue of government accountability reform, and how best to loosen the grip of narrow interest groups over the federal government. In connection with that discussion, I had the good fortune to get in touch with regular League reader Paul Fidalgo, who is currently the communications director for FairVote, a non-partisan think tank dedicated to electoral reforms whose Board of Directors includes personalities ranging from former GOP Congressman and third-party Presidential candidate John Anderson to former Nirvana bassist/activist/author/Washington state politician Krist Novoselic, who was appointed the chairman of FairVote in January 2008.
One of FairVote’s principal initiatives is the National Popular Vote (NPV), which seeks to convince states to give their electoral votes to whichever Presidential candidate wins the popular vote. NPV legislation would not become binding until states representing a majority of electoral votes passed it. Paul was kind enough to answer some questions about why the NPV represents an important piece of the accountability puzzle.
Mark: Let’s start with the basics. What is the National Popular Vote initiative, and why is it important?
Paul Fidalgo: Let me answer the second point first. It is commonly understood that the Electoral College is a little bit odd. No matter who you supported in 2000, it can’t sit well with folks that we have a system in which the guy who got fewer votes than his opponent gets to be president. Plenty of well-meaning people see a lot of good in the Electoral College system, but its all theoretical and academic, and primarily ideological (not in the red-blue sense but in the states’ rights sense).
No matter how it is spun or explained, however, it is a plain fact that the Electoral College, in more ways than one, renders some votes for president more valuable than others. Under the Electoral College, it is literally true that not every American’s vote is equal. That is the main thrust of the argument against it. No matter how you excuse it, a vote in Florida is worth far more than a vote in Vermont, a vote in Ohio is worth far more than a vote in Wyoming.
Here’s why. In all states but Nebraska and Maine, when a candidate wins a plurality of a state’s popular vote, that candidate gets every single one of their electoral votes, regardless of the margin of victory. That’s key. So then think like you’re a candidate. If you’re a Democrat, why on Earth would you waste precious time and resources trying to convince more people in Massachusetts to vote for you when your victory in that state is already assured? Likewise, why bother working for votes in Idaho, when no matter how many Idahoan Democrats you bring to the polls, there is no way you’re going to win that state’s electoral votes. Vice versa for a Republican candidate.
The result is that states that are non-competitive are utterly ignored. Irrelevant. Only the “swing states,” those where the partisan margins are close enough to make a campaign effort worthwhile, get any attention. We’re working on data for the 2008 election, but look at 2004: Florida received more attention than 44 other states plus DC combined. This is really important for readers to digest: Votes in the vast majority of the country are for all intents and purposes irrelevant. This is why we call the non-swing states “spectator states.” All they can do is watch and wonder what the prized handful of swing states will do…and that number of swing states tends to get smaller with each passing election. But even if it didn’t, it’s still grossly unfair that there are huge chunks of the American electorate that get no attention during presidential elections.
And attention matters because it is an indication of accountability. Because they matter in the general election, the concerns of Ohio, Florida, and other swing states will naturally hold more sway for sitting presidents and aspiring presidents, and to other political leaders who want to see their candidate win in the next cycle.
If you’re not in a swing state, you don’t matter at the presidential level. We think that every vote for president should be equal no matter where or for whom it is cast.
And this doesn’t even get into the problem of losers becoming winners, and all the insanity that goes into effect if there is a tie or no majority in the Electoral College. Not pretty.
So then we get to the first part of your question. Until recently, the only solution to the problem of the Electoral College has been thought to be a constitutional amendment. Natural enough. But almost 700 attempts have been made to abolish the College through these means, and despite overwhelming public support to do so (usually in the 70-80% range) and support from majorities in Congress, one way or the other, the effort gets thwarted, normally by those representing small states who erroneously think they are advantaged by the College (we can get into that later if you like).
The National Popular Vote plan is a new approach. The gist is to use the states’ powers to decide how their electors are allocated (and that power is a constitutional one), and their power to sign agreements with other states. Here’s how it would work: States pass a law, the National Popular Vote interstate compact, that says that they will allocate all their state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, but they will only do so when enough other states have also passed the same law, adding up to 270 electoral votes (a majority of all electoral votes). Once states adding up to 270 pass the law, then the plan goes into effect. Nothing happens until there are 270 electoral votes worth of states signed on.
But when it does go into effect, we have a de facto direct election of the president by national popular vote! Remember: states get to decide how their electoral votes will be allocated, so this agreement says that the candidate who wins the national popular vote will get those electoral votes. The Electoral College remains in place, but as a kind of rubber stamp signing off on the true will of the American electorate. Then, every vote for president is literally and exactly equal, and it is in candidates’ interest to run up their margins in all areas of the country, to seek out every vote they can find in all corners of the nation.
And here’s what it is not: Opponents usually crow that they don’t want their state’s electoral votes going to the candidate that their state didn’t support. But that only shows a misunderstanding (or contempt) for the intent: The NPV plan would make “winning states” a moot point. Instead of worrying about how a state votes, we only concern ourselves with the only electoral unit that ought to matter: the individual voter.
That’s the basics. I’m happy to take on any questions or concerns this brings up. There’s lots more to say about it, obviously, and we’re just scratching the surface.
Mark: That said, how would you respond to the argument that, even if the NPV is technically constitutional, it directly undermines and circumvents the constitutionally mandate procedure for ensuring that the President is indirectly elected via the Electoral College? Relatedly, what are the Constitutional principles that underly the concept of indirect election of the President, and how are those principles preserved, undermined, or strengthened by instituting de facto direct elections?
Fidalgo: NPV doesn’t at all undermine the constitutionally mandated procedure of the Electoral College. Seriously, not at all. In fact, we at FairVote would prefer to undo the Electoral College altogether via constitutional amendment allowing for direct election of the president by national popular vote. That said, NPV does give us a de facto direct election, but uses the existing mechanisms of the Electoral College to certify it. In other words, the Electoral College would remain in place under NPV, the only difference being that states change the way they allocate the electoral votes that the Constitution says they have the power to allocate. If a state wanted, it could give its electoral votes to the tallest candidate (I would lose this race). NPV just says that signatory states will give their electoral votes to the candidate that wins the most popular votes.
But I don’t want to shy away from the notion that it is a change; NPV would address and correct the fundamental injustice of the Electoral College system. I imagine that in the 18th and early 19th centuries, it might have made sense that only a worldly state legislature would have any useful understanding of the national candidates for president. But since that time, we as a political society have realized that more democracy is better, not less, that a consituency deserves to directly choose who leads or represents them. That’s why we moved to direct election of US Senators. The framers, I imagine, were trying to make a feasible system of picking a chief executive that suited their times, and it’s easily arguable that it didn’t even work then (see elections thrown into the House with Jefferson/Burr, et al). But today there’s nothing preventing a national direct election, and more importantly, it’s much more in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution, of self-government, to have a system that does not value one voter over another, one state over another. Every vote for president must be equal, no matter where it is cast. That’s absolutely not the case now, in practice or in theory. To us, it feels maddeningly obvious that this needs to change.
Mark: What would the NPV mean for conceptions of Presidential power and authority? Would nationalization of the Presidential vote further strengthen the hand of the President via-a-vis Congress?
Fidalgo: I don’t know that NPV changes the actual literal power of the president–in fact, I’m sure it doesn’t. But it’s hard to imagine that a president would not govern with at least some palpably stronger mandate if he or she took office with a buffer-free popular vote win. Certainly, it’s a better mandate than having a president take office who *lost* the popular vote. (I want to stress this is not at all about whether Bush or Gore “ought” to have won or who one might prefer.) But I also want to stress this: the perception of power or a mandate are really byproducts, and irrelevant to the bigger principle: that every vote be equal. We’re less concerned with the feelings of legitimacy for an office holder than we are for the voters.
Mark: if the NPV were ever adopted in a sufficient number of states, what (if any) would be the effect on the national primary system? Do you think that the influence of certain states due to the primary system inhibits their willingness to take on NPV legislation?
The primaries are a whole other ball of wax, and FairVote does have some strong feelings
about how to fix them. But really, they have little technical effect on the Electoral College/NPV situation. I would only be projecting at this point, but I would imagine that more people would see the oddness of a few small states holding disproportionate power over the nominating process if the norm became a single, national direct election for the general. And I can only speculate as to the motives behind the resistance of some states to NPV. No doubt, Iowa and New Hampshire enjoy both being the center of the primary universe as well as being swing (or swing-ish) states in the general. But would that mean they would balk at a direct election? Hard to say. One hopes principle trumps dubious swing state status.
Mark: One final question. What can readers do if they wish to get involved with supporting NPV?
Fidalgo: It’s actually important to note that NPV is not something FairVote came up with, but we are probably the prime backers, supplying all sorts of research and data to support the cause. We champion the NPV plan as one our prime reforms.
That said, the first place you ought to go is NationalPopularVote.com
, the official organization that is making this happen. Of course, for all the analysis and data you could ever want on the merits of the plan, problems with the Electoral College, and why we need presidential election equality, go to FairVote’s NPV page
Right now, this can be a very inside baseball movement, lots of making the case to state legislators on the ground. But they need to know that their constituents *want* equality in presidential elections — voters in spectator states should demand that their vote count as much as any Ohioans or Floridians, and voters in *those* states should stand up and say that the rest of the country deserves an equal say in who our president will be. Write letters to state representatives, letters-to-the-editor, and use FairVote’s website as a source for data and rebuttals to common (and frankly wearying) myths.
I’d make one last point. This is not some kind of ideological shenanigan to help one party or another, it’s not an “end-run” to reach some partisan goal. Yes, demographics of a given cycle will cause one system to favor one party or another, but none of this is constant. We really just want to see presidential elections decided by the people to whom they will be responsible. It’s fundamentally unfair that presidents need only feel accountable to a tiny, tiny slice of the electorate because of where they happen to live. Certainly, a direct election situation would create all sorts of new dynamics in campaigning, but the bottom line is that every vote will count equally, and no one will be irrelevant. A vote will be a vote will be a vote, no matter what.