Louisiana should push for Electoral College reform

By Rob Richie
Published May 11th 2006 in Bayou Buzz
Should Louisiana join in the push for Electoral College reform? Columnist Mike Bayham has opined it should not. The issue has already passed a senate committee. Here is a “Letter To the Editor” regarding this very issue by Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote and co-author of the book "Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote.

Mike Baham may oppose Louisiana joining the National Popular Vote plan for presidential elections [commentary, May 11], but Louisiana legislators and voters have every incentive to change the current presidential election system to one in which every vote is equal no matter where it is cast.

Louisiana indeed is the posterchild for how the way states have chosen to allocate electoral votes results in rampant inequality and imbalances in policy. When Florida was hit by hurricanes in 2003 and 2004, federal reaction was immediate and generally applauded in the state. But when Katrina and Rita came ashore in Louisiana in 2005, we all know the federal response was far more problematic.

It is hardly a stretch to finger the Electoral College as one important reason Florida got so much better service from the federal government. Consider that Florida is the quintessential battleground state, so tightly balanced in presidential races that it alone can tilt the presidency. In the final five weeks of the 2004 presidential campaign, the four major party presidential and vice-presidential candidates made fully 61 campaign stops in Florida out of 291 in states around the country. Out of $237 million spent on television ads by the campaigns and their backers in that period, more than $64 million was spent in Florida.

In sharp contrast, Louisiana didn´t earn even a single campaign visit during those final five weeks while a measly $203,000 was spent in the state on television ads. You can be absolutely certain that no one in a national campaign worried about the concerns of individual Louisiana voters. Indeed George Bush´s campaign team didn´t poll a single person -- not one -- outside of 18 battleground states in the final two and a half years of the campaign.

My organization established an "attention index" based on campaign activities in the peak seasons of the 2004 campaign. If every state were treated equally, each would have had an attention index of 1.0.

In 2004, however, six states had an index of greater than 4.0, while Louisiana had an index of only 0.03. Remarkably, that actually put Louisiana ahead of 23 states, most of which were utterly ignored in the campaign, including the great majority of small states.

Given that it wasn´t long ago that Louisiana was a close state in nationally competitive years, someone might think those days are coming back. All indications point the other way-- the number of battleground states is steadily shrinking, with only half the number of electoral votes "in play" as there were a generation ago. Without the National Popular Vote plan, the people of Louisiana should expect even less attention in 2008 than the little it received in 2004 -- perhaps none at all when it really matters.

The U.S. Constitution gives to states the power to do what´s best for its people in deciding how to allocate electoral votes. In the early decades of our nation, most states in fact didn´t choose to use the current system of awarding all electoral votes to the statewide vote winner. Today, most states have moved toward using that approach, but it certainly isn´t in the Constitution -- and it´s certainly not in the interests of a state like Louisiana.

What most Americans want is simple: a national popular vote where every vote is equal. For decades the Gallup poll has shows landslide support for a vote where all Americans have an equal ability to hold the president accountable. Typically that support has covered Republicans, Democrats and independents alike -- that´s why backers included people like Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and Howard Baker. Only since the 2000 election has Republican support dipped lower, but this is not about helping Democrats. George Bush cruised to a national popular vote victory margin of three and a half million votes in 2004, but would have gone home empty-handed if 60,000 Ohio voters had changed their minds.

Looking at a few of Baham´s specific concerns, the National Popular Vote plan is in no way an attack on federalism -- indeed it is founded on the power the Constitution gives to states to do what´s best for their people. The plan certainly has no impact on the power and composition of the U.S. Senate, it doesn´t change the powers governors and state legislatures have and so on. It just means we will have a president who can be held accountable by all Americans, not just those living in Florida and a handful of other states.

Louisiana also has nothing to fear about being one of the first states to join the interstate agreement to establish the national popular vote. Absolutely nothing will change until the number of states in the agreement would make it decisive. That means we will either see presidential elections run exactly as they are now or we will have a national popular vote.

New ideas can take getting used to, but the National Popular Vote is a "new idea" that´s as old as American democracy: holding elections for powerful offices where every vote is equal. We have decades of experience in running one-person, one-vote elections for governor, Senator and other offices. When those elections are close, every voter matters, and every region of a state gets attention from at least one of the campaigns. States have every reason to establish this kind of democracy for electing the president - and the constitutionally protected power to do just that. Here´s hoping HB 927 keeps advancing in Baton Rouge this year.

(Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote and co-author of the book "Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote.")