a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

National Popular Vote vs. fixing the electoral college

Posted by Thomas Nephew on June 8th, 2007

In an aside to an earlier post, I mentioned that I’m skeptical about the so-called “National Popular Vote” (NPV) plan. Even if my skepticism concerned anyone, NPV supporters in Maryland can breathe easy, of course, because our state has passed a law making Maryland the first state to pledge to cast its electoral votes for the popular vote winner, if other states comprising an electoral majority follow suit. If enough other states follow suit, NPV might be an elegant veto of today’s electoral college system, without all the fuss of a constitutional amendment.

But maybe this problem and its remedy deserve a fuss. I think the “National Popular Vote” is based on a misdiagnosis of the problem with our electoral college, and actually replaces one antidemocratic effect of that system with another, worse one. The real problem isn’t that the outcomes of 51 State races overrides the popular vote; in my opinion, the problem is simply that the apportionment of electors to the states makes election outcomes in small states — and, as it happens, rural Western ones — far too important, at the expense of those in other states.

Removing each state’s Senate-based
electors would have resulted in a Gore
victory in 2000, as the linked
spreadsheet demonstrates.

By contrast, the “51 race,” indirect election feature of the electoral college system is actually a good thing, in my opinion. Why? There are a number of reasons, I think, and I’ll try to develop them further another time. But fundamentally, they all boil down to this: because it’s the 51 states that actually administer elections — not the federal government. Under the NPV system, Maryland would routinely risk forfeiting its electoral votes to a candidate its voters didn’t favor — a candidate who necessarily only won elsewhere, in elections that were by definition completely unaccountable to Maryland voters.

The way the electoral college is composed, however, is a bad thing. Why? The formula for allocating electoral votes to each state is to add the number of Congressional representatives from each state — proportional to the number of that state’s population, but with a minimum of one — to the number of senators from each state. The result is to guarantee states with paltry populations like Wyoming and Alaska a minimum of three electoral votes — and a vastly disproportionate influence on the outcome of presidential elections.

The 2000 presidential election is Exhibit A for most critiques of the electoral college. But as the first image on the right shows (and the linked spreadsheet documents in detail), the effect of of just abolishing each state’s “Senate-based” electors would have resulted in a 225-211 Gore victory, much more closely matching the popular vote outcome — and without requiring any state’s voters to accept misrepresentation of their collective decision based on election outcomes administered elsewhere.

Adjusting the electors to a completely population-proportional formula (i.e., having the least populous state wield one electoral vote, and others proportionally more) would have had similar results.

Gore would also have won if
electoral votes were more
proportional to state populations.

It’s not the electoral college per se that needs to bother us, it’s how its votes are allocated.

Of course, both the current system or one modified by abolishing Senate-based electors leaves many “losing” voters misrepresented. But
(a) that’s a state of affairs they accept in all kinds of ways as it is, for example in voting for governor;
(b) given that one election’s losing voter may be the next one’s winning voter, it’s rational to accept a winner-take-all system to maximize your winning vote’s impact; and
(c) there’s nothing preventing a given state from choosing to emulate Maine or Nebraska and open the door to split electoral votes.*

One may argue that it’s disingenuous of me to judge my electoral college scenarios by whether Gore would have won the 2000 election, rather than simply preferring the popular vote result. My goal, however, was mainly to demonstrate that the 2000 outcome could have been avoided with a constitutionally more conservative remedy than NPV.

But I’m willing to take it a step further and say that if either electoral college reform I propose were undertaken, I would actually prefer the electoral winner to the popular vote winner when they were different. Why? For the very reasons the electoral college system was designed in the first place.

Think about it. You’ve ironed out the disproportionalities, and now you have an election where Candidate A wins 50 out of the country’s 51 states and jurisdictions by slim but consistent margins, say 51-49%. But Candidate B is a favorite in one large state, say… Texas. Or Florida. Or wherever. She wins by 60-40% there, and hence wins the popular vote. But just look at the map; personally, I would like Candidate A’s claim to the whole country’s leadership better than I like Candidate B’s — and so would quite a number of other voters, in quite a number of other states. Supreme Court, here we come.

Reasonable people can differ about this kind of thing, of course — but they did, they wrote a Constitution about it, and they basically found for the electoral college method, not the popular vote one. I suggest that if we’re going to change a fundamental process of our democracy, and in so doing undermine the federalism that’s one of our republic’s most important features, let’s do it right: by Constitutional amendment, not by a state compact.

* Maine and Nebraska election law calls for splitting their electoral votes, casting the Senate-based votes on the basis of the statewide winner and the remaining votes on the basis of each congressional district’s winner. In practice, though, both states’ election results have led to “no-split” electoral votes in past elections.

EDIT, 6/8: “One may argue” paragraph rewritten for clarity; the original text will be saved in comments in case anyone cares.

11 Responses to “National Popular Vote vs. fixing the electoral college”

  1. Tom Hilton Says:

    Under the NPV system, Maryland would routinely risk forfeiting its electoral votes to a candidate its voters didn’t favor — a candidate who necessarily only won elsewhere, in elections that were by definition completely unaccountable to Maryland voters
    That’s an interesting point, and one I hadn’t really considered. That said, I still think NPV would be preferable to the current system.
    But I agree 100% with your assessment of the real problem with the electoral college (as currently constituted). I’m a Californian; my vote is roughly 1/6 of a Wyomingite’s vote. That’s just terribly wrong.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks for dropping in! You write, “…I still think NPV would be preferable to the current system. Even if the system were reformed as I suggest, I take it. My quixotic defense of the electoral college must be taken to the next level! Onward, Rocinante!
    I admit it can make me uneasy to support overriding a popular vote tally with an indirect electoral one, and maybe I should listen to what that unease is telling me. While I think my points are sound, they may need more thinking through and explication. Some of it has to do with the sheer size of this country, and the political divisions that flow from geography and ecology. We’re a continental republic; it’s really a different ball game than most, and it’s not one that’s been solved any better anywhere else, I think.

    Re the EDIT note, here’s the promised original paragraph that I rewrote:
    One may argue that it’s disingenuous of me to measure the acceptability of my electoral college scenarios against the Bush/Gore 2000 election. My goal was mainly to demonstrate that the 2000 outcome that bothers so many people can be avoided with a constitutionally more conservative remedy than NPV.

  3. Nell Says:

    Am I correct that your proposed re-allocation of electoral votes would require a constitutional amendment?
    I’m not sure it’s enough of a change to win the necessary states — not to mention that it certainly couldn’t win passage in many (any?) of the states whose electoral votes would be diminished.

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Yes, I imagine it would take a constitutional amendment. I don’t know how the notion would fare in state legislatures, but getting 3/4 to ratify would probably be a lot tougher than getting to a simple majority of electoral votes. I’m not saying NPV isn’t politically clever, just that I think there’s a better approach — one that doesn’t threaten to throw my vote and my state’s electoral votes on the bonfire of someone else’s election screwups or malfeasances.
    (I realize that’s seems to describe what happened in 2000, but in my view that’s mistaken. The founding fathers bear the blame for the screwed up aspects of the Electoral College, but my vote wasn’t thrown away in 2000* — those of a majority of Floridians were, in large part by a judicial fiasco that should be held against Rehnquist, Scalia, O’Connor, Kennedy and Thomas.)
    [[[Incidentally — can everyone access the spreadsheet? Maybe I can just because it’s my document, login, etc.]]]
    * Afterthought: actually, 1/3 of my vote was so to speak thrown away, given that one bozo DC elector abstained.
    Second afterthought, re my “continental republic” statement: That certainly overlooked a bunch of counterexamples, perhaps primarily Canada, India, and Brazil, and maybe EU, Japan, Indonesia, and Australia, though those seem either too theoretical, homogeneous, shaky, or small respectively to quite qualify. Still they all +/- manage, don’t they; all +/- parliamentary, none with terribly strong executive branches — maybe a plus, all things considered.

  5. Todd Nicholson Says:

    I have no problem with Maryland awarding its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote as long as doing so is part of an agreement that ensures the national popular vote winner always wins. Presidential elections are about electing presidents: period. Electors are simply a weird mechanism that distances voters from being able to hold their president accountable.
    Here’s a thought experiment: can you imagine any state replacing their current popular vote election for governor with a system like yours based on counties? Theoretically the same logic could apply, but it simply would be unacceptable to people.
    It’s legitimate when a candidate is elected governor when not winning most counties in a state. No one questions it, and it doesn’t mean they don’t try to get votes wherever they can.
    You neglect what really is the worst feature of our system: that because most states aren’t going to be close in a nationally close election, they are completely, absolutely irrelevant to the campaigns. That would still happen with your proposal, as far as I understand it.
    And yes, it would a constitutional amendment, and… that is not going to happen.

  6. Thomas Nephew Says:

    It’s legitimate when a candidate is elected governor when not winning most counties in a state.
    Sure — because states have sovereignty over every county in ensuring state election laws are followed. One county’s voters have recourse if they suspect another county’s votes are being miscounted — or suppressed, just so I don’t get shunted off into the crazy conservatives corner. States, by contrast, would seem to have little recourse in a national election, esp. regarding suppression.
    To add to my 50 51-49, 1 40-60 scenario above: years later it turns out that the reason Candidate B got 60% of the vote is because of her state’s massive purges of minority voters from the voter registration rolls, questionable voter ID requirements, and a systematic campaign of spurious vote fraud allegations in that state right before the election. As we’re learning, those methods aren’t from some fictional dystopia.
    The electoral college is a system of firewalls or bulkheads, limiting election damage like this to one state rather than (potentially) saddling all of us with the results. It could have even eked by in 2000 without my proposed reforms, had all the votes been counted in Florida. But the US Supreme Court, the GOP, the media, and the Gore/Lieberman campaign’s own failings all conspired to prevent that. And with an electoral college re-jiggered to be more proportional, even the bad Florida count wouldn’t have mattered.
    To put my objections in a more positive way, I think NPV (properly understood) essentially requires that the federal government exercise complete jurisdiction and control over elections (at least federal ones), right down to nationally uniform voter registration laws and election processes for such elections. That sounds good, too, until you suspect that your own favorite vote reforms in your state — say, early voting, or no electronic voting, or same-day-as-registration voting — will go out the window. Maybe it would be worth it.
    But I suspect this corollary requirement of NPV isn’t really understood and won’t be required — certainly not by state legislatures! Put yet another way, imagine NPV as a constitutional amendment. That would be an uphill battle, too, for just these reasons: states would be signing off on an amendment that (in my view, anyway) inexorably leads to federalization of elections (or at least it should). The NPV state compact idea, by contrast, seems to want the reward of a national popular vote without paying the full price. If so, it would then get what it paid for.

  7. Thomas Nephew Says:

    what really is the worst feature of our system: that because most states aren’t going to be close in a nationally close election, they are completely, absolutely irrelevant to the campaigns.
    I kind of suspect that with NPV, campaigns might not be much different than now: ignore “flyover country” in favor of media and campaign saturation on the coasts, with forays mainly into urban areas elsewhere. At least, those without much cash would probably start and end there.
    Whether that’s right or not, I think no matter how a national election is arranged, there will be places that are ignored — those where little further gain per input ($, visit, whatever) is anticipated — and places that aren’t. At least states can’t be gerrymandered every 10 years (or less, recalling TX) the way that congressional districts are all too often.

  8. joreko Says:

    The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President arises from the winner-take-all rule (currently used by 48 of 50 states) under which all of a stateÂ?s electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most votes in the state. If the partisan divide in a state is not closer than about 46%-54% after the conventions, no amount of campaigning during a brief presidential campaign is likely to change the winner of the state.
    As a result, presidential candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the concerns of voters of states that they cannot possibly win or lose. Instead, candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of Â?battlegroundÂ? states. 88% of the money is focused onto just 9 closely divided battleground states: Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and New Hampshire.
    This makes most of the states Â?fly over country,Â? including include 9 of the nationÂ?s 13 most populous states (California, Texas, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia, and Massachusetts), 12 of the 13 least populous states (all but New Hampshire), and a majority of the other states.
    A national popular vote would create a 50-state campaign in which candidates would spread their attention over the entire country, roughly corresponding to population. Presidential candidates generally make about as many campaign stops (about 450, post-convention) during the 3-month campaign as there are congressional districts (435). And, they allocate their money closely in tune with their visits. Instead of concentrating 88% of their visits and money in just 9 states, the Democratic candidate would suddenly care about how many popular votes he got in Idaho, and the Republican would care about how many he got in Rhode Island.
    You can bet your best born that that the candidates will suddenly discover Idaho and Rhode Island (and all the other states that are currently ignored) because the opposing party would make mincemeat of any candidate who failed to show up in a given state or region. However, the candidates donÂ?t need the threat of the inevitable retribution by the opposition to know that they must spread their campaign out evenly over the entire jurisdiction served by the office. Candidates for Governor and U.S. Senate have known for years that they must campaign in every part of their state, in both friendly area and unfriendly areas, in both big cities and rural areas, for the simple reason that every vote is equally important. A national popular vote would mean that every personÂ?s vote would matter, regardless of where it is cast.

  9. Thomas Nephew Says:

    I’ve never been persuaded that campaign time spent (or not spent) in Idaho or Rhode Island, or any other particular state or states, is the measure of a successful election. Were Idahoans or Rhode Islanders seriously upset by the lack of visits to their states, i.e. being ‘taken for granted’ (to paraphrase), they would be and are perfectly free to run as and more to the point vote for favorite son(/daughter) candidates from their states or regions. (I could write the campaign ads myself: “Idaho matters! Vote Dan Favoritson in ’08!”) As of lately, this wouldn’t be a mere gesture, either; under the right circumstances — a close election and favorite son candidates in states with enough electoral votes — it could throw the election into the House of Representatives.
    The scarcity of such candidates, and their complete lack of success when they do run, suggests to me that this isn’t a pressing problem needing to be solved. It doesn’t even happen in the “low-hanging fruit states” — ones like Wyoming or Alaska, with more than their share of electoral votes for the picking. Americans these days just don’t seem to want favorite sons — meaning, I think, that they don’t really evaluate campaigns the way you do. Idahoans and Rhode Islanders seem to go ahead and vote for a president even if he or she doesn’t visit them as often as you would like.

  10. Thomas Ray Worley Says:

    Small states will never vote for an amendment that takes away their disproportionate weight. Maryland’s compact with other states is the only way a change will come about.

    One problem with national popular vote that an electoral college system does eliminate is ballot-stuffing by some states. If your state stuffs the ballot boxes with many more “votes” than actual, national popular vote gives that state credit for its criminal act. A system where the state’s weight is proportional to population erases this problem.

  11. » Blog Archive » The possible electoral college controversy ahead — and what *not* to do about it Says:

    […] legitimate results, but on fraudulent results elsewhere — and would have no recourse.  As I wrote in 2007 in opposing the National Popular Vote (NPV)** proposal  (emphasis added), Under the NPV […]

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