Keep it simple with a national popular vote

By Robert Richie
Published October 2nd 2007 in The Politico
Some leading California Republicans and North Carolina Democrats recently wanted to play games with presidential elections. Their now-orphaned attempt to award Electoral College votes on a congressional district-by-district basis, rather than the traditional winner-take-all approach, is just one more nail in the coffin of an increasingly outmoded system.

California GOP activists last week all but gave up the battle due to funding disputes and infighting, while earlier, Democratic legislators in North Carolina buckled to pressure from the national party. Still, these groups have a right to be frustrated.

Under the Electoral College system, presidential campaigns ignore their states, and the other major party keeps winning all the electoral votes.

But in both cases, partisanship nearly trumped principle. The “solution” was to award the statewide popular vote winner only two electoral votes; the rest would have been awarded according to the winner of each congressional district.

Do not be deceived by the semblance of fairness. In reality, it was a partisan power grab designed to shift the Electoral College balance toward a particular party.

California Republicans would boost their presidential ticket by the same number of electoral votes up for grabs in Ohio, and North Carolina Democrats would win four or five more votes for Democratic candidates — enough to have reversed the 2000 presidential election, when George W. Bush claimed 271 Electoral College votes, a scant one more than the bare minimum.

Some have suggested that the district-by-district approach would be fair if applied across the board to each and every state. Yet even if done nationally, dividing states’ electoral votes by congressional district is a mistake that fails two fundamental criteria of a democratic system: representation of the national will and equal relevance of all Americans.

In 2000, for example, Al Gore won the popular vote by 0.5 percent, while Bush took the presidency with a 0.9 percent victory in the Electoral College. Under the district-by-district vote, Bush’s electoral vote margin would have increased to 7.1 percent. In 2004, Bush would have won three more electoral votes than John F. Kerry in Michigan despite losing the state.

Such distortions are typical. In 1968, Richard Nixon’s 0.7 percent lead in the popular vote would have turned into a 19 percent win in electoral votes. In 1976, under the district system, Jimmy Carter would have defeated Gerald Ford by only two electoral votes despite a 2 percent win in the national popular vote.

Most Americans would remain irrelevant spectators in presidential campaigns under the congressional district plan. In 2004, more than 87 percent of congressional districts were won by margins greater than 4 percent.

In California, 50 of 53 districts were won by even more comfortable margins of at least 8 percent. A handful of swing states would cede influence to a thimbleful of swing districts, effectively benching the rest of the country.

Good government is rarely the motivation for such proposals. Indeed, partisan meddling with the Electoral College is an old game. In 1890, Michigan Democrats adopted the district system to help their candidate; once partisan control flipped again, the state immediately restored the unit rule.

Back in 1800, when most states either didn’t hold popular elections or divided their electoral votes, Virginia supporters of Thomas Jefferson hastily adopted the unit rule to shut out John Adams from any electoral votes.

With a shrinking number of battleground states, the Electoral College system demands reform. We need a fair election for president, not for faceless electors, and the only real solution is a single national election where every vote is equal no matter where it is cast, as used to elect nearly every other office in America.

To their credit, North Carolina Democrats are debating whether to join Maryland in the National Popular Vote agreement. This innovative proposal goes into effect once the participating states collectively have at least 270 electoral votes — meaning enough to guarantee the election of the national popular vote winner.

Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed California’s entry into the National Popular Vote agreement, perhaps due to pressure from fellow Republicans interested in the congressional district power grab. If he is truly seeking to represent the interests of California and the nation, he should support the bill and help us have a national popular vote decide the presidency in 2012.

Only then will Republicans in blue states and Democrats in red states share an equal vote with all Americans. From the battlegrounds of Ohio and Florida to the far reaches of spectator states like Alaska, Hawaii, North Carolina and California, let’s vote together as Americans, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Robert Richie ([email protected]) is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit organization in Takoma Park, Md., which researches and advocates election reforms aimed at increasing voter turnout.