Can National Popular Vote end the voting wars?
One of the most pernicious outcomes of the intense political struggle between Democrats and Republicans is the parties’ breathtaking capacity to game our voting rules. Nothing makes voters more cynical than seeing political leaders seemingly supporting or opposing election laws based solely on their partisan impact — from redistricting reform to fights over whether to allow early voting.
But a reform win in New York could foreshadow a cease-fire in the voting wars. On April 15, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation making New York the 10th state to pass the National Popular Vote (NPV) interstate compact for president. Overwhelming majorities of both Republicans and Democrats approved the bill, which seeks to guarantee election of the presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
We don’t need a constitutional amendment to achieve this goal. The Constitution gives each state power over how to allocate its electoral votes and the ability to enter into binding interstate compacts. The Founding Fathers gave states freedom to structure how to select the president — and national popular vote embodies that tradition.
It can only go into effect after adoption in jurisdictions that collectively hold a majority of electoral votes. Right now, the supporting states together have 165 of the 270 electoral votes necessary to activate the national popular vote. Once states with at least 105 more electoral votes pass it, we will hold a presidential election in which, for the first time in U.S. history, every vote in every state will count equally. The candidate with the most votes will always win.
It’s hard to overemphasize the value of passing the national popular vote. Today, a partisan wall blocks out meaningful competition in more than two-thirds of states and even larger majorities of congressional districts. As soon as a state has an underlying preference of more than eight or nine percentage points for one party — with New Mexico and Missouri examples of such former swing states — no amount of money or voter mobilization can influence that state’s presidential outcome in a nationally competitive year.
For the last few presidential cycles, more than 98 percent of general election campaign spending and campaign events bombarded only 12 states. Meanwhile, at least 35 states — small and large, Eastern and Western, Democratic and Republican — received less than one-hundredth of a percent of the attention they would likely receive under a national popular vote for president.
This perverse reality makes a mockery of the idea that in presidential elections all states and all voters should matter. All-consuming focus on swing states makes their voters’ concerns infinitely more important to presidential campaigns than the concerns of the other two-thirds of Americans.
These blinders distort what candidates talk about, what their campaigns address, where the party nominees travel, and which states receive federal grants. It’s no accident that swing states have greater voter turnout than the rest of the nation.
The National Popular Vote plan has been working its way through the states since 2006. It offers an elegant reform solution that pleases conservatives by preserving state power over elections and the future of the Electoral College, yet satisfies liberals who back constitutional change to achieve direct election. So it seems almost surprising that this system has not yet won national enactment. But that assumption would overlook the great suspicion both major parties bring to the others’ motives when it comes to voting laws.
With the 2000 election looming in the background, many Democrats ignored the 2004 election (where George W. Bush would have lost the White House with a shift of fewer than 70,000 votes in Ohio — despite his national advantage of more than three million votes) and immediately backed NPV. Many Republicans immediately questioned it for the same reason.
States run by Democrats passed national popular vote first, further suggesting that it was somehow a partisan proposal. With fewer and fewer “blue states” left, NPV could have been left far short of the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
Fortunately, the lead advocacy group National Popular Vote has, from the beginning, emphasized the nonpartisan value of its proposal. For how can opponents convincingly argue that electing the candidate with the most votes is partisan? It’s an eminently fair fight — with strong candidates from both parties able to win.
It comes down to whether parties have confidence in their policies and ability to earn majorities. If you do, you can be confident in winning majority support in a truly representative democracy.
Under the current system, however, majority support does not guarantee electoral success. In any given election, one party or the other can have an advantage based on the vagaries of the leanings of a few swing states. Republicans used to have an edge, but in recent elections, pundits like Nate Silver of 538 convincingly argue that Democrats have had an edge. The 2016 race, however, is anyone’s guess. We know that there will be a distortion — but we don’t know who it will help.
New York’s bipartisan vote for National Popular Vote underscores growing support for the notion that a fair vote is better than a gamed one. That fair vote should include all Americans when electing their president, and candidates should have incentives to seek votes everywhere — with every single voter equally important to winning a majority in a close election.
Not only did NPV earn the support of 25 of 27 Republicans and 28 of 30 Democrats in the New York state senate this year, but it passed Oklahoma’s heavily Republican state senate. Nebraska state legislators gave NPV a serious look, and other states are considering action.
The broader promise of setting aside the voting wars is tantalizing. Suppose the parties agreed to establish an explicit individual right to vote in the Constitution and passed measures that ensured no votes were cast by ineligible voters, but all eligible voters had fair access to the polls. Suppose Congress finally took on the problem of gerrymandered congressional districts and required all states to have independent commissions draw larger districts in which nearly all voters could elect preferred candidates using fair representation voting systems.
Nothing would be better for restoring Americans’ faith in their elected officials if those officials made it clear that voters and their democracy come first. Our political leaders should be willing to allow fair completion and encourage high participation in exchange for earning the consent of the governed as intended by our Constitution.
PHOTO (TOP): “I voted” stickers are shown at a polling station during a special election for mayor in San Diego, California, November 19, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake
PHOTO (INSERT): Voters stand in line to cast their ballots for the presidential elections at a polling place in the Richmond Public Library in Richmond, Virginia, November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst