State compact would allow popular vote for president

By Neil Modie
Published March 20th 2006 in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
As much as Washington voters may have felt pummeled by the rancor and intensity of the 2004 race for president, the candidates, the campaigns and their surrogates largely ignored this state.

It was nothing personal. Relatively speaking, during the final, crucial 5 1/2 weeks before the election, both campaigns paid even less attention to big states such as California, Texas and New York, not to mention places such as Idaho, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Rob Richie, director of FairVote, a national, non-partisan electoral-reform organization, hopes to change that by forcing a national popular vote for president. He contends it would eliminate the tendency of the campaigns to focus overwhelmingly on the ever-shrinking number of politically competitive states.

It would also eliminate the possibility -- as happened in 2000 and two other times since the Civil War -- of one candidate winning a majority of the popular vote while the other candidate wins a majority of Electoral College votes and consequently the presidency. It came close to happening again in 2004.

In 2000, George W. Bush was elected president even though Democrat Al Gore outpolled him by a half-million votes nationwide. In 2004, Bush won 3 million more popular votes than Democrat John Kerry, but a shift of just 60,000 votes in Ohio, which Bush won, would have given the election to Kerry.

Richie, a former Washington state resident, came to Seattle last week to promote the bipartisan National Popular Vote campaign, in which FairVote is a major partner. It's a long-haul effort. He helped create Citizens for Proportional Representation in Washington in 1991 and co-founded a national version in 1992.

Unlike past efforts, the National Popular Vote campaign wants not to abolish the Electoral College, which would require accomplishing the politically Herculean task of amending the U.S. Constitution, but to do an end run around it.

The campaign unveiled its scheme last month and since then has gained some favorable national attention as well as support from figures in both major political parties.

FairVote and its allies want to persuade legislatures in states representing at least 270 electoral votes -- a majority of the 538-vote Electoral College -- to pass laws entering their states into a legally enforceable interstate compact. That agreement would bind those states to give all of their electoral votes to whichever presidential ticket wins a majority of the national popular vote.

The compact wouldn't become activated until states with at least an electoral-vote majority had entered into it. A bill with bipartisan support already has been introduced in the Illinois Legislature.

"You give all your electoral votes to the national popular vote winner, and you do it collectively," Richie said last week. The U.S. Constitution leaves it up to the states to choose the mechanism for allocating their electoral votes.

Richie thinks Washington is a good prospect for joining such a compact because the state has had "a history of debate over proportional representation."

In 2004, Washington -- which leans but is by no means solidly Democratic -- exemplified the problem Richie cites: what FairVote calls America's "two-tier democracy." A relatively small number of states, large and small, are typically up for grabs in a presidential election while a much larger number of "spectator states," including Washington, typically aren't.

In 2004, according to FairVote's research, only 13 states were true battlegrounds, and the number of truly competitive states has gradually dwindled since 1960.

"Red states are becoming redder and blue states are becoming bluer," Richie said. "Washington is an example of a blue state becoming bluer."

During the peak of the 2004 campaign, President Bush and the Republicans invested little attention and money in an attempt to win Washington's 11 electoral votes because almost certainly, according to poll data, they'd go to Kerry anyway.

Similarly, the Democrats couldn't afford to spend much time and money on those 11 votes that their internal polls said would be theirs regardless.

Under America's Electoral College system, the presidential election isn't a national election but 51 separate elections: the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In all but two states, the winner in each state gets all of its electoral votes whether he or she prevails by one vote or a million. So the candidates rarely show up in the non-competitive states except perhaps to raise money. Nebraska and Maine award electoral votes to the top vote-getter in each congressional district.

In a winner-take-all system, "the state only matters if (campaign) people think the result might change" by campaigning there, Richie said, "because if it's not competitive, you're not going to win any more electoral votes or any less electoral votes" by mounting an effort.

In other words, the campaigns pay the least attention to where they're best liked and where they're least liked.

As a result, according to an extensive study by FairVote, during the peak of the 2004 campaign, neither side spent a cent on TV and other advertising in such states as California, New York and Illinois, which were solid Kerry states, or Georgia, Kansas and Virginia, which were locked up for Bush.

The Bush campaign spent all of $127 in his home state of Texas.

In the final 5 1/2 weeks, the campaigns spent a relatively paltry $1.2 million in Washington state, and none of the four presidential and vice presidential candidates made appearances here. But in swing states, they showered $9.4 million and 37 visits on Iowa, $47.3 million and 48 visits on Ohio, $64.3 million and 61 visits on Florida, and $4.6 million and six visits on 4-electoral-vote New Hampshire.

No TV ads ran in 23 states during the peak campaign season. Of all the campaign ads nationwide, 52 percent were concentrated in just three states.

Todd Donovan, a political scientist at Western Washington University and an expert on electoral reform, likes the national popular-vote idea.

"The candidates would have completely different incentives in terms of the campaign," Donovan said. "They would campaign where the voters are rather than where the close races are."

Defenders of the Electoral College argue it guarantees that small states get some attention in the campaign -- "which is only correct," Donovan countered, "if you have a small state that has a 50-50 balance" politically.

The FairVote study found that of the 18 states with the least population, "11 received absolutely no attention" during the peak of the campaign season.

Donovan thinks a national popular vote would cause the candidates to focus mostly on the major media markets instead of only the most competitive states.

"But you'd probably have a much more nationalized campaign. You could say that would be a more expensive campaign because they'd have to campaign in more places," he said.

"I see that as a good thing. It would probably increase campaigning and (voter) turnout."

P-I reporter Neil Modie can be reached at 206-448-8321 or [email protected].
Sierra Club National Popular Vote Resolution
WHEREAS, the mission of the Sierra Club is to explore, enjoy and protect the planet through grassroots participation in politics and government; and

WHEREAS,  presidential candidates focus their efforts and resources only in battleground states.

WHEREAS, two-thirds of the states receive little to no attention in a competitive presidential election.

THERFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Sierra Club supports National Popular Vote state legislation that will elect the President of the United States by popular vote.

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that the Sierra Club supports election of the President of the United States by direct popular vote.