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Idea of National Popular Vote weighed by Ariz. lawmakers

Mary Jo Pitzl // Published March 24, 2008 in The Arizona Republic
What if the United States held a presidential election and the candidate with the most votes won?

That's the simple but radical idea behind a movement called the National Popular Vote.

The fledgling drive aims to change the way states pick electors to the Electoral College. It would award a state's electors on the basis of the nationwide vote for president, instead of the statewide vote tally.

That way, the Electoral College vote mandated by the U.S. Constitution would mirror the results of ballots cast by all voters, rather than giving disproportionate weight to the votes from so-called battleground states.

"How can anyone justify that anyone's vote in Ohio is more important than someone's vote in Wyoming?" asked Barry Fadem, president of National Popular Vote.

Yet that's how the current system works, Fadem insists.

Take Arizona. A reliably Republican state when it comes to presidential elections (only twice in the past 60 years has Arizona gone for the Democratic candidate), Democratic votes count for nothing in the current winner-take-all system unless the Democrat wins.

Likewise, neighboring California, dependably Democratic, presents the reverse problem for Republican voters.

"In California, where do the Republican votes go?" Fadem asked.

In the 2004 presidential election, California's 55 electoral votes went to John Kerry, even though George Bush won the national popular vote.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and a handful of other states are battlegrounds that get the bulk of candidates' time, money and attention. The rest of the country, including Arizona, gets crumbs, if that.

State Sen. Paula Aboud, D-Tucson, likes the idea of widening the playing field.

"It's like joining the country," she said. "This is what's good for the country."

She introduced a bill to have Arizona join an interstate compact that would make the National Popular Vote the format for Arizona's electors.

The compact calls on states to switch to the National Popular Vote system once enough states with electoral votes that add up to 270 sign on. (That's the number of Electoral College votes it takes to pick a president.) Organizers aim to have the system in place for the 2012 election.

Aboud's bill isn't going to get a vote, but Government Chairman Jack Harper is holding an informational hearing on the matter in his committee today. Harper, R-Surprise, said he is "slightly not in favor" of the concept, but he agreed to the hearing as a favor to Aboud.

The current Electoral College system is constitutional and works fine, Harper said, adding he questions whether the method outlined by National Popular Vote fits within the U.S. Constitution.

But Fadem, his co-authors of a 620-page book on the topic and two states have not found any constitutional quandaries posed by the prospect of picking electors on the basis of the nationwide popular vote.

The electoral format has been signed into law in Maryland and New Jersey and is on the governor's desk in Illinois.

Legislation to enable the concept is moving forward in Massachusetts, North Carolina and Rhode Island. The governors of California and Hawaii have vetoed the idea, but their legislatures are again pushing the idea this year.

Fadem said the idea gets resistance from Republicans, who think its proponents are Democrats bitter over the 2000 presidential election, where Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but Republican Bush won the presidency based on the Electoral College.

But consider this, Fadem says to counter his critics: If John Kerry had picked up 59,393 more votes in Ohio four years ago, he would have won that state's pivotal Electoral College votes - even though Bush had a more than 3 million vote lead in the popular vote.

"If someone wins an election by 3.5 million votes, don't you think they ought to be elected?" he asked.

The idea has other merits, Fadem said. Candidates would spread their campaign dollars around, knowing every vote really counts, rather than focusing almost exclusively on battleground states. In 2004, five states got 72 percent of the money spent on the presidential campaign, according to his research.